This story was updated April 16, 2018, at 6:10 p.m.
NASHVILLE — A last-minute effort to hike taxpayer-funded hotel reimbursements for Tennessee lawmakers on official business in Nashville was rushed through a House committee today on a voice vote.
The bill, sponsored by House Republican Caucus Chairman Ryan Williams of Cookeville, was approved on a House vote with a few dissenting votes.
It would shift the current per-diem formula lawmakers use from that set by the federal government for its employees in Davidson County to a new formula based solely on Nashville's Central Business District.
Williams told State Government Committee members changes were justified given soaring hotel rates in the city's center. Nashville has experience a boom in luxury hotel construction.
"This would not be a raise, this would be a reimbursement," Williams told Rep. Darren Jernigan, D-Nashville, who questioned the increase.
Replied Jernigan: "That would be one way of looking at it."
Williams said in response to further questioning that the survey of Central Business District hotels would be conducted monthly. The federal survey is believed to be done annually, lawmakers recalled.
The current reimbursement rate is $170 per night for lawmakers on official business in Davidson County.
Most of the reimbursements are made during the part-time legislature's annual session.
Williams said it would likely boost the per diem lodging reimbursements by about $30 to $60 depending on what month or major sporting or entertainment events in Nashville that boost hotel or motel expenses for lawmakers.
In response to other questions, Williams said the new formula would not apply to state employees staying in Nashville on business.
Lawmakers also get reimbursements for mileage and a set allotment for meals which the bill does not impact.
Under current law, lawmakers living within a 50-mile radius of Nashville do not get the hotel reimbursement.
Asked later why the changes were being pushed at the last minute - legislative leaders hope to wrap up their annual session next week - Williams said a broader bill failed recently in a Senate committee.
"All this bill does is reset what the per diem rate is," he told the Times Free Press. "It's a small amount of money."
Williams said "it's not about money, it's about reimbursing the money based upon what the current market rate is. The current market rate set by the federal government is for the entire county, Davidson County. This is for the CBD rate where most of the members stay."
Lawmakers said one of their colleagues was forced to spend $600 when he couldn't find a cheaper room and stayed in one of Nashville's top hotels. That
Some lawmakers are known to seek cheaper lodging outside the Central Business District. A few are known to sleep in their offices. And some lawmakers rent or own condos or homes.
Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro is carrying the Senate bill. The original measure was a caption bill which made no mention of hotel per diem payments and simply said that a facilities manager would ensure the General Assembly's official flag would be flown outside the Cordell Hull Building.
But the caption included the state code provision related to per diems. As a result of the committee action, it now deals with the per diem.