Abusing the Roundhouse’s reimbursement policy? Two lawmakers say they’ve seen it
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Recent stories of a couple Roundhouse legislators receiving questionable payments charged to state taxpayers sparked discussion on Tuesday (Sept. 25), with two state representatives saying they’ve witnessed suspicious practices by fellow lawmakers when it comes to charging mileage and receiving per diem.
“We’ve had abuse of that lately,” Rep. Don Bratton (R-Hobbs) said at a meeting of the Legislative Council committee in Santa Fe. “Some members go to a committee meeting hearing, go for a short period of time and leave and they charge mileage and per diem … I’ve witnessed some abuse.”
A few minutes later, Rep. Antonio Luján (D-Las Cruces) chimed in, saying he had seen “one legislator who came into one meeting, attend for one hour, leave and said, ‘I’m going shopping.’ ”
The subject came up as the director of the Legislative Council Service (LCS), Raul Burciaga, proposed that perhaps his organization should send out a memo “and make it clear about the policy” concerning reimbursements for legislative expenses.
Last week, Rep. Ray Begaye (D-Shiprock) came under fire for alleged double-dipping — pocketing more than $1,000 when he returned from a trip to Phoenix using a rental car — and prompting the State Attorney General’s Office to look into the matter.
And last Friday, an investigation by the New Mexico Watchdog raised questions about Rep. Miguel Garcia (D-Albuquerque) using campaign expenses for massage treatment for a back injury as well as receiving payment for mileage for using his personal car on trips to the Roundhouse while records indicate he made those trips in whole or part by taking the Rail Runner.
New Mexico legislators do not receive a salary for serving in the Roundhouse. They receive a per diem of $153 during legislative sessions (and can receive up to $180 a day outside the sessions) and are reimbursed for approved expenses.
But the system for campaign expenditures and mileage essentially works on the honor system, with lawmakers turning in forms to the LCS staff. When asked how the non-partisan LCS polices any potential overlap to make sure legislators aren’t double-dipping, Burciaga said, “we don’t really have a mechanism to track that.”
“Like just about every other group,” Sen. Tim Jennings (D-Roswell) said during the hearing, “95 percent does it right. There’s always 4 to 5 percent who don’t and abuse the situation.”
Agreeing with other committee members that taxpayer dollars need to be protected, Sen. Cisco McSorley (D-Albuquerque) pointed to a committee chaired by former Roundhouse member Max Coll some 10 years ago that made recommendations to strengthen ethics policies regarding reimbursements. “But the Legislative Council at the time killed it,” Sen. McSorley said, because “at the time the committee said there was no way to legislate morality.”
McSorley suggested dusting off recommendations made by Coll and applying them now.
Bratton called for possibly having the LCS add a check-box on the reimbursement and mileage forms legislators fill out, requiring them to state clearly whether they’ve received or applied for compensation from other entities.
Posted under Capitol Report.
Tags: Antonio Lujan, Cisco McSorley, Don Bratton, Legislative Council Committee, Legislative Council Service, Max Coll, Miguel Garcia, New Mexico State Attorney General's Office, New Mexico Watchdog, Raul Burciaga, Ray Begaye, Tim Jennings