"I want an answer as to why I have to buy your lunch when I have to work and pay for my own lunch?" says Christiana factory worker Martha Mendez.
Mendez is outspoken on the per diem issue.
"They need to be taking them a bologna sandwich from their own house," says Mendez.
Our WASTE WATCH research shows at $173 a day, Tennessee's is the 2nd highest per diem rate in the country - behind only Alaska, and tied with Georgia.
"It is a windfall for some legislators and it shouldn't be," says Tennessee Tax Revolt's Ben Cunningham.
Even legislators who live close to the Capitol and sleep in their own beds at night still get it.
"If you live close to the Capitol and you're taking that full per diem rate, you're obviously making money where you shouldn't be making money," says Cunningham.
Nashville resident Senator Thelma Harper (D-Nashville) took the per diem to the tune of $25,000 last year, one of the highest. She didn't want to talk about it, but Representative Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro) did.
"I agree, if I'm not staying in a motel then I shouldn't be paid for it," says Senator Ketron.
Ketron's per diem last year was $15,000. Ketron rightly points out costly civic commitments that come with the job.
"I give some of it back to charity," says Senator Ketron. "Going to the heart ball, the education ball, everything you're required to write checks for, you actually go in the hole."
Legislators automatically get that $173 if they're present for roll call. It's state law. They can't refuse it, but they can return it.
"I have, as you know, given back per diem, although I have not given back every bit of per diem that I've received," says Representative Mike Stewart (D-Nashville). "So, I don't think generally speaking that I need per diem if I'm right here in town, but I don't speak for anyone but myself."
We checked Representative Stewart's per diem spread sheet. He didn't return it in 2009 and 2011, but returned most of it in 2010. For 2012, his total was $11,000. The lawyer and Desert Storm veteran's per diem is still lower than many others who live locally. Still, others turn in for extra per diem on days they do office work, like Representative Sherry Jones (D-Nashville), whose per diem totaled $19,000 in 2012.
"If you start cutting per diem, the only thing you're doing is cutting out the ability of an average person to run for this office," says Representative Jones. "It is part of the salary. It's in the code. It is by law."
Representative Brenda Gilmore (D-Nashville) lives 10 miles from the Capitol and earned $17,000 in 2012 per diem. Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) - $12,000. Senator Jim Summerville (R-Dickson) - $15,000. The list goes on. Keeping it is the norm.
"It's been a political football far too many times," says Cunningham.
Elections in fact have been won or lost on this issue. That's how pharmacist Senator Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin) got elected.
"Two things I promised," says Senator Haile. "One was I would no longer accept any per diem for lodging. The 2nd was the first bill I would file would be addressing the per diem issue."
Senator Haile has introduced legislation that would cut out hotel expenses for legislators living within 50 miles of the Capitol, but our WASTE WATCH research found many states doing better and going further. Hawaii, for example, pays commuting legislators $150 a day. Non-commuters who live close to the Capitol get just $10 a day. Michigan has cut out abuse by capping per diem at the flat rate of $10,000 a year.
"There's so much technology available now for debit cards and automatic tracking of expenses apps on your phone," says Cunningham. "There are all kinds of ways to track your expenses, and when people are directly compensated for their direct expenses, that's fine. Nobody has a problem with that."
That's really all the Martha Mendez's of the state are asking for.
"What are you spending my money on?" asks Mendez. "It's my money!"
We should point out 5 states have no per diem for lawmakers, and Tennessee lawmakers make just $20,000 a year as part time legislators. There are many other states that pay less. If you'd like to see how much per diem your legislator gets, go to Fox17.com and click on FOX LINKS. We continue this WASTE WATCH REPORT on TENNESSEE MORNINGS tomorrow. You'll hear from one state senator who returns all of his per diem. Why he does it when others do not. You can find all our WASTE WATCH stories on Fox17.com. Just go to HOT TOPICS and click on WASTE WATCH. You can also submit your ideas for WASTE WATCH stories in that same section.
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