by Max Brantley
In short, the state agrees that legislators in the future will be reimbursed only for actual expenses and they will be subject to audit. The suit argued that most legislators had been drawing flat monthly sums and a payment in lieu of per diem, without itemization, that amounted to unconstitutional supplements to salaries, generally set around $15,000. The unitemized flat payments could exceed $36,000 per year. The settlement of the illegal exaction lawsuit does not call for any repayment of past payments.
I'm going to restrict my commentary here for a variety of reasons. First, this lawsuit was supported by the Arkansas Public Law Center, a nonprofit group of which I am a board member. Secondly, for procedural reasons, I was added to the lawsuit today as a plaintiff along with the original plaintiff, Kathy Wells. The lawsuit also adds two defendants, House Speaker Robert Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Paul Bookout. The original defendants were one Republican, Rep. Ann Clemmer, and one Democrat, Sen. Jerry Taylor, and state officials and employees who oversee payments to legislators. The lawsuit is intended to cover the practices of all legislators.
The settlement, which you can read about fully here, is the product of negotiations between the APLC's attorneys — Bettina Brownstein and John Burnett — and the attorney general's office. The settlement includes $35,000 in attorney fees.
As is customary in settlement agreements, there is no admission of wrongdoing on the part of state actors.
It is safe to predict that this lawsuit won't end all questions about legislative reimbursements for all time. Legislators who live within 50 miles of the Capitol, for example, are in some ways the hardest hit. They'd been drawing lump sum expense payments, but, under federal law, if they make expense claims in the future for commuting expenses, it must be reported as taxable income under federal IRS rules. Isn't taxable income a salary supplement, impermissible under the Arkansas Constitution? That's a question that wasn't ripe for presentation in this lawsuit. It could be in the future, depending on actions of future legislators.
Here's the original lawsuit, with recent amendments.