A Fox 5 News report on the expenses of state legislators has triggered a strong reaction from many major players in Prince George’s County.

According to the report, many legislators cost the state thousands of taxpayer dollars in work-related travel expenses, though many of them live less than 50 miles away from Annapolis.

Over the past two years, several Prince George’s County lawmakers have cost taxpayers over $20,000 each in expenses. Those include Del. Dereck Davis, D-Dist. 25, who ran up bills totaling over $25,000 and five other delegates, Michael Vaughn, D-Dist. 24; Joseline Pena-Melnyk, D-Dist. 21; Tawanna Gaines, D-Dist. 22; Melanie Griffith, D-Dist. 24 and Ben Barnes, D-Dist. 21 with bills totaling over $24,000 each.

In order to combat those numbers, Sen. Allan Kittleman, R-Dist. 9, introduced a bill that would restrict the use of the housing allowance funds. Under Senate Bill 310, no General Assembly member living within 50 miles of the state house would be able to use the state’s housing allowance for reimbursement.

“I think at a time right now when we’re dealing with a budget crisis, we need to set an example that we’re willing to take a hit,” said Kittleman at a hearing for the bill.
James Dula, chairman of the Maryland branch of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and former chairman of the Prince George‘s County Chamber of Commerce, agrees with Kittleman. He says it’s not outright abuse of taxpayer money, but it’s time that legislators are more sensitive to the economic crisis many county residents are dealing with.

“Common sense has to play a role somewhere,” Dula said. “I don’t think they’re abusing it, but I think they’re taking advantage of it during a time when the economic crisis is affecting so many people.

“We have to figure out a way to spend less money more wisely, than to continue to operate business as usual,” he continued.

Some legislators say the funds are necessary, though. Sen. Joanne C. Benson, D-Dist. 25, said legislators often work late nights and it is unfair to ask them to drive home late only to return early the next morning.

“For 90 days we’re asked to come here and conduct the business of the state,” she said. “We get here sometimes before eight o’clock and there are days that some of us in this room, who are legislators, don’t leave our offices until 11 and 12 o’clock at night.

“I do worry just a tad bit that people will be misled that we just come down here and stay in a hotel just to be staying. For me, it’s important that I do get the rest that I need in order to tackle the issues that come before us during the course of the day.”

Dula doesn’t have much sympathy for Benson as he says meaning working class folks do the same thing every day.

“You’re not that far away for us to have to spend $9,100 instead of driving 20-30 miles,” he said. “We have people who get up every day to go into seven and eight o’clock meetings that live 20 or 30 miles away.”

 

George Barnette

Special to the AFRO