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NYS Exposed: Millions of tax dollars going towards lawmakers' travel expenses

August 30, 2016 06:07 PM

State lawmakers receive millions of dollars a year in stipends and reimbursements related to their work in Albany.

After a couple a former lawmakers were convicted last year of filing false expenses, travel costs appear to be going down. The question is, however, are they going down far enough to protect your tax dollars?

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New York state lawmakers get a salary of $79,000, but they also get a stipend for every day they spend in Albany -- whether they use it or not.

It's a perk that has been abused in the past and some believe needs radical reform.

Richard Cobb does a lot of traveling for the American Chemical Society. And like many people who travel for business, he has to turn in detailed receipts to get reimbursed for his expenses.

"You have to have an accounting of everything you spend," says Cobb. "You don't get a penny under or a penny over."

But that's not how it always works in Albany. Lawmakers do have to submit receipts for expenses like gas and tolls. But they also receive $172 a day in per diems to cover their lodging and food for every full day they're in Albany. What they don't spend, they're allowed to pocket.

"Typical Albany," says Cobb. "Typical government-type thing which is why people are getting frustrated. That's just outrageous."

The per diem system has led to abuses -- with two New York City lawmakers going to prison last year for filing false expense vouchers for days they weren't even in Albany. New reforms have been put in place that now requires state legislators to swipe a card to prove they're at the Capitol. Government watchdog groups say that doesn't go far enough.

"I think they're in danger of losing public support for the per diem system at all," says Blair Horner, NY Public Interest Research Group. "I mean, the rest of us pretty much have to turn in our receipts if we want to get reimbursed. Very few people are allowed to collect a per diem even if they stay at a friend's house."

According to the state comptroller's office, per diem and travel expenses for lawmakers totaled $2.3 million for the first six months of this year. The number is down slightly from the same period last year. We broke down the numbers. Assemblyman Harry Bronson received the third most among lawmakers, $19,503, in reimbursements and stipends.

Brett Davidsen: "How do you account for those travel expenses?"

Bronson: "This is an anomaly. It's totally related to my responsibilities on the Commission for Skills Development and Career Education."

Bronson says his new role required travel statewide for hearings and job training meetings. As for the $172 per diem, we asked Bronson if he thought taxpayers would approve of lawmakers keeping what they don't spend.

Brett Davidsen: "Do they have a right to be upset about that?"

Bronson: "Taxpayers have a right to always analyze how we're spending their money. It's their money."

Brett Davidsen: "If you stay at the EconoLodge and it's only $79 a night, should lawmakers be able to put the rest of that money in their pocket?"

Bronson: "Certainly I'm willing to take a look at it."

Cobb says a receipt system with a cap on allowable expenses is the way it should be. "I would say some oversight. You would have to turn receipts in to get your absolute reimbursement back -- not a penny more. Not a penny less," he says.

If you want to see how much your state lawmaker is getting back in stipends, you can click here.

One lawmaker attributed that to the fact that they spent a few less days in Albany this year. But some of those savings may have to do with all the corruption coming from Albany -- there are some clearer rules now on reporting these expenses and lawmakers may just be acting a little more cautiously.

Links

State Assembly per diems

State Senate per diems

Credits

Brett Davidsen

Copyright 2016 - WHEC-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company

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