Legislative gridlock is costing taxpayers around $350,000 a month in food, lodging, and travel expenses for lawmakersenough of whom are ideologically constipated that the Legislature is now in its sixth month of a state budget impasse. As irksome as this may seem to many Tennessee taxpayers, some downtown business operators aren’t complaining.
Charlene Walker, the general manager of The Palm, a high-priced eatery adjacent to the new Hilton Hotel across from the Gaylord Entertainment Center, says legislators and lobbyists have accounted for 40 percent of her restaurant’s business since the General Assembly convened in January.
“They are some of the nicest people you can meet, and they love to come to my restaurant,” Walker says. “As far as I’m concerned, they can stay in session all year.”
Walker, who used to work for Morton’s Steakhouse, says her restaurant has had to overcome its location. “When we first opened, we were afraid we wouldn’t be able to capture the legislative business because we were so far away from the Capitol,” she says. “But we went to some lengths to get that business. We even put many of their pictures up,” she says, referring to caricatures of legislators such as Sen. John Ford and Sen. Curtis Person of Memphis that decorate the walls of the ritzy restaurant.
Then there’s the Day’s Inn across the Cumberland River from downtown. Manager Ron Bryer is reluctant to say how many lawmakers stay at his hotel, but he says the Legislature brings in more money than the nearby Adelphia Coliseum. “Most of the people who go to the Titans games are local,” he says. “But we have a lot of legislators who stay here. Some of them have been staying here for 14 years, and they take good care of us.”
In addition to their $16,500 annual salary, state lawmakers are paid a $114 per diem to cover food and lodging and another 32 cents a mile for travel expenses. Because no one knows when lawmakers will go home, legislative administrator Connie Frederick can’t predict the ultimate tab for the ongoing session. But during May alone, taxpayers spent $343,740 on legislative per diem and travel expenses. Through the end of June, then, that would mean lawmakers’ expenses will have cost taxpayers nearly $2 milliononly one piece of the annual $24 million the Legislature spends in salaries, staff, and overtime.
Terry Clements, director of visitor development for the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau, says his office has never tried to quantify the impact lawmakers and lobbyists have on Nashville’s hotel and restaurant business, but he says, “It’s a big deal. It’s like a small convention that lasts a long time and that you don’t have to bid on.”
(Clements also says, however, that noisy demonstrators honking horns around Legislative Plaza doesn’t promote good impressions for visitors. “If you’re trying to spend a day at the Capitol, paying tribute to the statue of Alvin C. York or seeing the grave of James K. Polk, it certainly adds a bit of discord to your day.”)
Many state lawmakers stay at the Downtown Sheraton and the Hermitage. Meanwhile, The Palm, Morton’s Steakhouse, the City Club, and the Gerst Haus are legislative favorites for dining.
Midget May, the manager of the Cumberland Club, a downtown restaurant in the Nashville City Center building, says lobbyists and legislators “are truly great for our business. We try to make this place feel like home for them, and we love having them. Every year when the session ends, we hate to see them go.”
It’s worth pointing out that, despite their generous per diems, legislators often eat at expensive restaurants because someone else is paying. There is no state law against a lobbyist wining and dining a legislatoras long as the lawmaker is invited as a member of an official group such as a standing committee, delegation, or caucus. There also is no state law prohibiting members of those groups from discussing bills or official state business at such dinner meetings.
Legislators are not required to submit receipts to receive the per diem, and they are paid the $114 regardless of whether they actually stay at a hotel. That means more discretionary income to spend. The boon to Nashville business isn’t lost on Mayor Bill Purcell, himself a former state legislator.
“It’s good for us in terms of tax revenues, public attention, and our proximity to public policy,” Purcell says.
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