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Legislators' trips cost Georgia

ATLANTA, Ga. -- Georgia lawmakers collected nearly $3.6 million in travel and expenses over 27 months, even as the state was slashing its spending, according to records the Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained through an open records request.

The newspaper found that top Georgia lawmakers billed the state for per diems on more than one out of every four days while the General Assembly was out of session in 2008, 2009 and the first few months of 2010.

In addition to their annual legislative salary of $17,342, each of the 236 members of the General Assembly is eligible to receive $173 per day in expenses, and more in travel costs when doing official business, even if the Legislature is not in session.

The system -- which pays some lawmakers more than $20,000 per year on top of their legislative salary -- is largely self-policed. There are few audits or checks to ensure that legislators are billing only for appropriate expenses.

"Someone should be watching the store," said Kelly McCutheon, president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent economic think tank.

Georgia has a part-time Legislature.

The biggest recipients of the payouts since January 2008 in the House were former Rep. Vance Smith, a Pine Mountain Republican who was the Transportation Committee chairman and is now commissioner of the Department of Transportation. He's followed by former Speaker Mark Burkhalter, R-Johns Creek, who was speaker pro tem for most of the time in question, and Appropriations Committee Chairman Ben Harbin, R-Evans.

In the Senate, the top recipients were Appropriations Committee Chairman Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, Sen. David Shafer, R-Duluth, Sen. Greg Goggans, R-Douglas, and Rules Committee Chairman Don Balfour, R-Snellville.

Each made more than $40,000 in per diems in the time period.