- Associated Press - Sunday, January 29, 2017

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Expense payments to Arkansas lawmakers fell by nearly half from 2014 to 2016 while salaries, thanks to a 2015 pay increase, more than doubled.

Expenses that include per diem and mileage were $2.29 million in 2016, down from $4.02 million in 2014.

Salaries increased from $2.13 million to $5.28 million in 2016, the first full calendar year after the Independent Citizens Commission, created by a state constitutional amendment approved by voters, boosted the pay to state representatives and state senators from $15,869 a year to $39,500. It also raised salaries for the state House speaker and state Senate president pro tem from $17,771 a year to $45,000, effective March 29, 2015.

In exchange for the increased pay, the Legislature eliminated the payment of up to $14,400 to lawmakers for office-related expenses.

Combined salary and expense payments to lawmakers totaled $7.57 million in 2016 — up from $6.15 million in 2014, the most recent years in which the Legislature met for its biennial fiscal session, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported (http://bit.ly/2jsx8yh ).

The Legislature meets during odd-numbered years in regular session, typically a longer session incurring more expenses.

“At this point, I think it is a much cleaner system than what used to be in place,” said Senate President Pro Tem Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy.

Legislative leaders have tried to consolidate the schedule of committee meetings, such as holding two meetings on one day rather than separate days, and meetings during two weeks of each month rather than each week of the month, said House Speaker Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia.

“I think overall, we’ve been able to save money in a lot of areas, especially in mileage and per diem, and keep expenses down,” Gillam said.

In 2016, Gillam collected the most expense money among the 135 lawmakers, $38,824.

“For me, I was very hands-on in 2016 and attended a lot of the meetings, being involved much more here,” Gillam said. “There were some opportunities to attend criminal justice symposiums and some other leadership opportunities that I took advantage of, and I think travel expenses and things like that were greater for me than in normal years.”

Among senators, former Sen. Jon Woods, R-Springdale, collected the largest amount, $33,692 last year.

Woods announced in November 2015 that he wouldn’t seek re-election in 2016, but continued to attend conferences, including the Southern Legislative Conference in Lexington, Kentucky, in July and the Council of State Government’s conference in Williamsburg, Virginia, in December.

Woods could not be reached for comment, the newspaper reported.

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Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, http://www.arkansasonline.com

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