Bills introduced to change state law regarding mileage payments to legislators

Two state senators from the region have proposed a bill that would prohibit mileage payments from counting toward legislators' pension calculations.

The bill would also prohibit legislators who are part of a carpool from collecting mileage when they are passengers on a trip to Hartford. 

Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, and Heather Somers, R-Groton, have introduced S.B. 567, which would restrict mileage payments to legislators who drive from their home to the state Capitol, or for a public hearing or meeting at another location. Under the bill, referred to the Appropriations Committee, legislators also would receive mileage reimbursements instead of the current mileage allowance, which is based on how far each legislator's home is from Hartford. 

Currently, the mileage allowances legislators receive are considered part of their salaries and are included in calculations for their pensions, said Jim Tamburro, executive director of the Joint Committee on Legislative Management. The allowances are taxed, and the state, as the employer, has to match Social Security.

When legislators are elected and sign up for payroll, they fill out the round-trip mileage from their house to the Capitol, he said. When they travel, they then fill out a form that indicates the date and reason for travel and submit it for a travel allowance for that date. Connecticut uses the rate, set by the General Services Administration, of 58 cents per mile.

The state law doesn't stipulate that the legislator must be driving to collect mileage, Tamburro confirmed, as first reported in October 2018 in the Hartford Courant

State Rep. Christine Conley, D-Groton, said that when she broke her leg in 2017 and was temporarily disabled, she got to work at the Capitol and had a 98 percent voting record by having her husband and family members drive her, spending substantial fees for Uber, and at times carpooling with colleagues. 

It became a campaign issue when opponents criticized her for collecting a mileage allowance, even though the law allows legislators to collect the mileage, whether or not they are the ones driving, The Day reported. 

Somers, who serves on the Appropriations Committee, said the bill is in no way personally directed at Conley. But Somers said the news article brought to light what she and many others hadn't realized: that under the current law, legislators could put in for mileage when they carpool with other legislators. She said it became known that this practice has been happening on both sides of the aisle for some time.

The bill also would eliminate the practice of adding the mileage payments to a legislator's salary in calculating retirement.

Somers said that given the financial landscape of Connecticut, when residents are being asked to give more and workers are being asked to give more, shouldn't legislators do the same? 

"It's just something collectively the legislature should look at if we want to reduce costs to the state," she said.

Formica, ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, said in his experience as a businessman and his work trying to cut expenses on the committee, he has always thought the state should handle mileage as a reimbursement for an expense, rather than an income. As a reimbursement, it wouldn't count toward pension considerations and the state also wouldn't have to match Social Security.

“I think the state could save millions of dollars by not having it as an income,” he said.

Under the current law, four legislators can carpool and all collect mileage payments, which Formica said "flies in the face" of the law's intent to offset the wear and tear on the car and gas mileage.

State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, co-chair of the Appropriations Committee, said she has received many bills pertaining to state employee benefits. She plans to have a public hearing, which will include anything that impacts state employees, and people can then make their positions known, but so far she has not heard from anybody about the proposed mileage bill.

State Rep. Mike France, R-Ledyard, is co-sponsoring H.B. 5336, a bill introduced by state Rep. William Petit, R-22nd District, and referred to the Government Administration and Elections Committee, to restrict the transportation allowance only to legislators who drive a vehicle to the Capitol, or another location for a public hearing or meeting. He said Connecticut is an "outlier" in how it handles mileage for legislators. In most states, legislators have to incur the expense and can't be a passenger in a carpooling vehicle to collect mileage, and also, most states have a lower mileage reimbursement, he said.

When asked for comment regarding the proposed bills, Conley said she doesn't serve on the committees where the bills have been introduced so she doesn't deal with them on a day-to-day basis. But she said heard a lot about the mileage when she broke her leg and she thinks a lot of unfair statements were said about people with disabilities.

She said many people in her district are dealing with blindness or have other reasons they can't physically drive, but still have to get to work and are entitled to receive a travel expenditure. Similarly, a member of the General Assembly may have a temporary or permanent disability, and if the legislator has to pay for transportation to get to the Capitol, then the legislator should be entitled to a travel expenditure.

"I fully understand a desire to be mindful with state money and a desire to talk about if more than one person is carpooling only one gets mileage, but I do want to make sure that we understand people have disabilities and have to get around by various means," Conley said.

Somers suggested that perhaps there could be a caveat to reimburse Uber receipts in certain circumstances if a legislator has a permanent disability.

Meanwhile, Connecticut legislators have introduced several other bills this session to exclude mileage from legislators' salaries in calculating pensions.

State Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, who has proposed H.B. 5006 to remove the mileage allowance from pension calculations, has proposed a similar bill every year, since reading about the pension issue before she was elected in 2016. With the issue gaining more attention recently, she hopes the bill will be taken up for a public hearing.

Cheeseman said that while a mileage payment can be useful to reimburse the legislator for “the wear and tear” placed on his or her vehicle, she finds it ridiculous to bundle the payment into a legislator’s salary to count toward his or her pension.

“I’m not going to underplay the hard work that goes on up here and the many hours people spend,” she said. “On the other hand, I simply don’t feel adding mileage reimbursement to your salary is warranted.”

k.drelich@theday.com

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