Legislators living near capital defend billing state for lodging

Duties during session justify staying close to State House, they say

General Assembly

April 05, 2008|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,Sun reporter

Del. Virginia P. Clagett lives a 16-mile drive from Annapolis, in the community of West River in southern Anne Arundel County. For the 90-day annual legislative session in the capital, the Democrat lodges a few yards from the State House, at the historic Governor Calvert House.

Del. Robert A. Costa, a Republican who lives a couple of miles farther down the road, in Deale, spends nights at home and commutes each day.

Clagett spent $10,556 in public money on hotel costs last year, while Costa spent $110.88 according to a list of state travel expenses, part of the nearly $130,000 in reimbursement that Anne Arundel County lawmakers sought for mileage, food, lodging and conventions in 2007.

"I don't think I could function ... if I didn't have that ability to be here late at night, early in the morning, no matter the weather or the traffic," said Clagett, 64, a member of the House of Delegates leadership. "I don't think my family would want me to."

Lawmakers representing the far reaches of Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore are expected to bill the state for lodging and meals during the session, but the practice is also popular among some legislators representing Anne Arundel County, home of the state capital. Despite living relatively nearby, they stay at hotels in Annapolis and bill taxpayers for thousands of dollars.

Dee Hodges, president of the Maryland Taxpayers Association, said she cannot begrudge Anne Arundel lawmakers' spending up to a few nights a week in Annapolis, particularly in the closing weeks of a session. But early in the session, when there are few late nights, there is little justification for staying every day in a hotel, she said.

Hodges said Clagett's lodging bill is "probably a little excessive."

"I don't consider 16 to 18 miles very far away," Hodges said.

The issue was rekindled recently when Brenda Reiber, a community-services specialist with Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold, a Republican, requested a list of Clagett's travel expenses, which are public record.

Several lawmakers said the inquiry was politically motivated. Reiber said she made the request for herself during her lunch hour. She was frustrated with the $1.3 billion in tax increases passed last year by the legislature and interested in how much public money the county's 20 delegates and senators spent on food, transportation and lodging, she said.

For the current session, legislators can charge 50.5 cents per mile between home and Annapolis and can receive a stipend of up to $123 a night for lodging and $41 a day for meals.

Anne Arundel legislators, no matter how much or little they spent, defended having their expenses covered, especially lodging and meals. They said it comes down to what each lawmaker is comfortable with, based on legislative responsibilities that can extend to 14 hours a day, family situations, health considerations and how they believe they best serve their constituents.

Costa noted that Clagett is chairwoman of the Housing and Real Property Subcommittee and vice chairwoman of the county's legislative delegation, and that her children are grown. He, by contrast, is in the legislative minority and is raising two sons.

"I don't see anyone pushing the envelope," Costa said.

Costa spent $2,665 on meals during the regular session and $1,800.33 on transportation, the biggest mileage bill among county legislators. Clagett reported no meal or mileage expenses. Some of her meals are provided by the inn where she stays.

Ryan O'Donnell, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, called the stipends and reimbursements provided to lawmakers "a legitimate use of money for doing their jobs."

"Annapolis is enough of a fraternity like it is," O'Donnell said. "We don't want lawmakers eating ramen noodles and living in dorm rooms."

Generally, legislators who lived farthest from Annapolis claimed more in expenses in 2007.

The three delegates from District 21 - Democrats Ben Barnes, Barbara A. Frush and Joseline Pena-Melynk - live in Prince George's County. Each claimed more than $15,000 in expenses in 2007, the majority of the tab for lodging in Annapolis during the regular session.

The District 21 senator, Jim Rosapepe, who, like Barnes and Pena-Melynk, lives in College Park, spent $3,722.60, of which $115.36 was for lodging.

"I like to sleep in my own bed. That's primarily why I go home," said Rosapepe, a Democrat. "I like to be with my wife. I live about 35 minutes away, so most of the time it's really workable."

But this session, as Rosapepe recovers from a broken leg, he is lodging near the State House. "I just can't drive," he said.

Two county legislators - Sen. John C. Astle, an Annapolis Democrat, and Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., a Glen Burnie Democrat - claimed no expenses in 2007.

Astle said he doesn't have an excuse because he lives off State Circle, four minutes by foot from his office.

"If I put in for lodging, my wife would want to know what I was doing," Astle said.

DeGrange commutes 40 miles round-trip during the regular session. The third-term senator said it is his practice not to take expenses.

Nine of the 20 county lawmakers are freshmen, and a few said they lodged in the state capital frequently last year, their first in office, so that they could build relationships with their counterparts.

Del. Nicholaus R. Kipke, a Pasadena Republican, said he learned quickly that if he wanted to get a bill through the House, he had to learn to lobby fellow lawmakers.

Del. Steve Schuh, a Gibson Island Republican, said legislators should not be judged based on how much they charge the state for lodging and meals.

phill.mcgowan@baltsun.com

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