By JOSEPH SPECTOR
Gannett Albany Bureau
ALBANY -- State lawmakers have yet to finish voting on a 2010-11 budget, and they've had $4 million in salary withheld until it's done.
But they have still received $1.2 million since April 1 for their daily expenses to come to Albany, records show. And the longer the budget battle drags on, the more it will cost taxpayers.
See how your lawmaker compares to others when it comes to per diem expenses
Estimates have put each daily session at a cost of $35,000 to $100,000. Lawmakers, excluding those who live in the Albany area, receive $171 a day when they are in town for lodging and meals. The cost of the per diems can add up. Lawmakers racked up nearly $4 million last fiscal year, records from the state Comptroller's Office show.
Lawmakers were hoping to wrap up voting on the budget this week, but they will also have to contend with whether to try to override Gov. David Paterson's vetoes of education spending and legislative earmarks, known as member items.
Some legislators knocked the ongoing session, which was originally scheduled to end June 21, as useless because rank-and-file lawmakers have little say in the budget process. The budget was due April 1.
The state Legislature has long been criticized for its three-men-in-a-room process - in which the legislative leaders in the majority and the governor hash out a budget deal behind closed doors. "As I've said before, why don't you just keep us home and when you three-men-in-the-room settle this then call us back, because the public is paying for this," said Assemblyman Joseph Errigo, R-Conesus, Livingston County, who is retiring at year's end.
The process has been similar this year, and conference committees among lawmakers in public sessions to discuss parts of the budget - required by state law -- have been bypassed. Legislators have passed most of the budget through weekly budget extenders introduced by Paterson. They also continue to pass legislation separate from the budget as they try to wrap up for the year.
A 1998 state law requires the state to withhold lawmakers' salaries when a budget's passage misses the April 1 deadline. The state budget has been late 23 of the last 25 years.
The Comptroller's Office said it would release the $4 million in salaries when the budget is finished. Lawmakers receive a base salary is $79,500, plus stipends in many cases for chairing committees and holding other leadership positions.
Lawmakers receive the per diems for every day they are in town and file their expenses with their chamber or the comptroller's office, which review the vouchers. They also get reimbursed for travel expenses, which have totaled about $363,000 so far this year.
Some lawmakers can receive more than $30,000 a year in per diems. Assemblywoman Earlene Hooper, D-Nassau County, consistently accrues the most in per diems, $40,812 in the 2009-10 fiscal year and $12,336 so far this fiscal year. She has explained that she works extra days in Albany on legislative business, even when lawmakers are not in session.
Last year, Sen. William Stachowski, D-Buffalo, topped the list in the Senate, with $39,342 in per diem costs. Since April 1, Sen. Martin Malave Dilan, D-Brooklyn, had the most per-diem costs at $8,532 in the Senate.
Some lawmakers may be more diligent in filing for their expenses than others. Sen. Suzi Oppenheimer, D-Mamaroneck, Westchester County, didn't have any per diems expenses listed in May or June. Asked why, she said, "There's no philosophical reason other than I've been so busy with everything else I haven't done it."
Some fiscal watchdog groups said the state should take a look at how per diems are accrued. For example, some states tie their per diems to the federal rates, but others, including Connecticut and New Jersey, do not pay per diems at all. "Every dollar in the state budget needs to be examined," Lise Bang-Jensen, a policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute's Empire Center for New York State Policy.
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