By Tony Cook
Ask Indiana lawmakers about possible conflicts between their private jobs and public work and you'll hear a common refrain: Such dilemmas are inevitable in a part-time citizen legislature.
But an Indianapolis Star review of lawmaker compensation found that legislators receive an average of about $60,000 a year. Some receive more than $70,000.
That's far more than the average Hoosier (Indiana's median household income is $48,248). It's also similar to what lawmakers in some states receive for working full time.
In Indiana, lawmakers receive a relatively modest base salary of $24,140. Most of their compensation comes from a per diem, which is $159 a day during the legislative session. That money is intended to cover the costs of meals and hotels, but lawmakers receive it regardless of whether they actually incur those expenses. Lawmakers who live in or near Indianapolis can simply pocket it. There is also extra pay for leadership positions.
Still, most lawmakers have some source of outside income.
The result can be an ethical minefield. This year alone:
--House Speaker Brian Bosma and House Ethics Committee Chairman Greg Steuerwald caught heat for taking legal work from the Indy Eleven professional soccer team or its owner, even as the team sought permission from lawmakers to fund a new stadium with tax money.
--House Education Committee Chairman Bob Behning dropped plans to lobby on behalf of a student testing company with a $6.4 million state contract after his efforts were reported in The Star.
--House energy committee Chairman Eric Koch authored legislation that would have stripped local governments of their ability to regulate gas and oil drilling. He dropped the measure after The Star reported on Koch's personal investments in at least 30 oil and gas companies.
Despite the potential for such conflicts, lawmakers defend the current system.
"It's a product of part-time legislative bodies around the country," Bosma said last month in defending newly appointed Majority Floor Leader Matt Lehman.
Lehman is an insurance agent who until his promotion to leadership had been chairman of the House Insurance Committee, where he oversaw legislation that directly affects his own industry. In fact, he's a member of an insurance trade group that lobbies state lawmakers.
It's not an unusual situation at the Statehouse. At least 60 lawmakers sit on committees that oversee legislation important to their private businesses, according to a new financial disclosure database The Star is launching today.
Senate President Pro Tempore David Long declined to comment for this story through a spokesman, but Bosma defended his committee appointments. Outside employment keeps lawmakers grounded in the real world and brings much-needed expertise to their public positions, he said.
Sixty thousand dollars a year is still less than what many lawmakers make in their private work as attorneys or business owners. And many lawmakers say prohibiting outside employment would discourage qualified individuals from seeking office.
"We have two choices," he said. "We either pay an exorbitant amount to full-time legislators that spend every week of the year legislating, or we have citizen legislators step forward from all walks of life and participate in the legislative process." The only other choice, Bosma said, is a full-time legislature -- something Hoosiers are unlikely to support.
But one could argue that Indiana already pays full-time wages.
The National Council of State Legislatures considers Indiana's General Assembly a hybrid system -- one in which lawmakers typically spend an average of at least 27 hours a week on legislative issues.
The average compensation in those states is $43,429, including base salary and per diem. Hoosier lawmakers make far more -- an average of $58,766 last year, when lawmakers met for only 2 1/2 months. And that doesn't include the lavish gifts lawmakers receive from lobbyists, such as expensive meals and tickets to sporting events such as Colts games and the Indianapolis 500.
Even some full-time legislatures pay lawmakers at rates similar to Indiana's. In Ohio, for example, where the legislature is considered full time, rank-and-file lawmakers earn a base salary of about $60,500 a year and receive no per diem.
"Indiana's compensation, when you add the salary and per diem, is very generous when you consider it's part time," said Julia Vaughn, policy director for Common Cause Indiana, a government accountability group.
"Most Hoosiers would love to get a part-time gig with the pay and benefits of a legislator."
In Indiana, lawmakers spend 2 1/2 to four months of the year in session, depending on whether they are crafting a new two-year state budget. They usually meet four days a week while in session, beginning in January.
But lawmakers say the job is actually much more demanding. A lot of work occurs outside public meetings, and many legislators serve on interim committees that meet a few times between sessions to study specific topics.
"I've always felt like I have two full-time jobs. In many ways, you're always on the clock," said House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, who is human resources director for the Swanson Center, a community mental health center. "I think most members of the legislature live pretty moderately. I think the ones that don't have had some success before they came to the legislature."
Lawmakers questioned whether adjusting lawmaker pay or the time spent on the job would actually reduce conflicts.
"I don't know that that would even eliminate them. People are still going to maintain some form of income," Bosma said. "I would challenge you to find a person of any substance that if they served in any position wouldn't have some conflict. We all are taxpayers. We all have insurance. We have contact with the public education system."
Reducing pay would be a bad idea, said Sen. Doug Eckerty, chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee.
"I think we certainly need an opportunity for folks of modest or lesser means to actually serve in the state legislature," he said. "My fear is that a reduction would kind of have the opposite effect and just make it a game for the rich folks."
But the line between lawmakers' public and private roles can easily become blurry. Such was the case last year when then-Rep. Eric Turner, a top House Republican, secretly lobbied against a bill that would have hurt his family's nursing home construction business.
Stories in The Star and the Associated Press led to an ethics investigation that eventually cleared him of any technical wrongdoing. Bosma later stripped him of his leadership role, and Turner resigned. The scandal led the legislature to pass new ethics rules earlier this year. They require members to disclose more information about their personal financial interests.
"The key is transparency. The key is disclosure," Bosma said. "And the key is to not publicly or privately advocate for something that has a direct unique personal impact on you or your business. That's where Rep. Turner fell into the gray area of the rules -- privately advocating for something that resulted in a significant and unique benefit to him, which is why I took the action I did."
But is disclosure enough?
"They are right in that this is a problem endemic to a part-time legislature," said Andy Downs, a political scientist at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. "And there is a benefit to having people with expertise on committees because it reduces the time it takes for lawmakers to get up to speed. How do you go about policing it is the question."
Right now, House and Senate ethics committees composed of lawmakers handle conflict of interest complaints against their colleagues -- a system long criticized by reform advocates.
"Anything that's internal to the legislature, people are naturally going to cast a suspicious eye on that," Vaughn said. "People believe independent investigation and enforcement of the rules is necessary because there is a natural tendency to circle the wagons and protect your own."
Downs said an independent agency and penalties high enough to deter bad behavior would garner more faith in the process.
"Where is the check and the balance under the current system? There isn't one," he said. "If we were serious about this, we would need a way to make anonymous complaints and a body that can investigate what's going on."
But lawmakers have steadfastly resisted such efforts.
Bosma said the House ethics committee has done a good job, noting its bipartisan nature.
"It's Republicans and Democrats together, looking at people from (the) other party," he said.
Eckerty echoed that sentiment.
"In the Senate, we have a pretty good system with ethics," he said. "Our folks are really very sensitive to potential conflicts when working on a bill or a vote."
Ultimately, lawmakers say, voters are the ones who have the final say over ethics.
"What we need to do," Bosma said, "is elect people of high integrity that they are able to recognize and reveal when conflicts become so unique and personal that they could affect their judgment."
10 highest paid Indiana lawmakers
These lawmakers received the most compensation in 2014. It includes base salary, per diem, leadership pay and extra pay for certain committee assignments.
--Sen. David Long, R-Fort Wayne: $70,488.
--Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville: $70,006.
--Sen. Jean Breaux, D-Indianapolis: $69,146.
--Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City: $67,665.
--Sen. Jim Arnold, D-LaPorte: $66,626.
--Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville: $66,462.
--Rep. Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis: $65,724.
--Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson: $65,439.
--Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek: $65,395.
--Sen. Ron Alting, R-Lafayette: $65,152.
Source: Auditor of State
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