By Chris Camire
BOSTON — Area lawmakers have pocketed nearly $10,000 in travel stipends halfway through this year’s legislative session, boosting their $61,133 base salaries each time they commute to work.
Under state law, state representatives and senators are entitled to a taxpayer-funded per diem for each day they travel to the Statehouse on official business. They receive the payments in their biweekly paychecks.
The amount of the stipend varies depending on how far a lawmaker lives from the Statehouse. The payments range from $10 per day for those who live in Greater Boston to $100 per day for those on Nantucket.
Lawmakers are not required to collect a per diem, and some choose not to do so.
In Greater Lowell, six of the region’s 11 state representatives have taken advantage of the perk this year. None of the area’s five state senators has received the payment.
Rep. Jim Arciero leads the pack among those lawmakers who take advantage of the deal. The Westford Democrat has been paid $3,146 on top of his salary this year, or $26 for each of the 121 times he commuted to Boston.
Rep. David Nangle isn’t far behind. The Lowell Democrat has been paid $2,600 for 100 trips to Boston, or $26 per trip.
Democratic Reps. Jim Miceli of Wilmington and Cory Atkins of Concord have each collected $1,080 for 60 trips into Boston at $18 a pop, while Democratic Reps. Kevin Murphy of Lowell and Colleen Garry of Dracut have received $910 and $832 for 35 and 32 trips to Boston, respectively.
The Legislature in 2000 approved a law doubling per diems to the current amounts. Legislative per diems are meant to cover the costs of travel, food and lodging. There is no deadline that lawmakers must meet in order to claim their per diems.
While a lawmaker from Lowell is reimbursed $26 for each trip to the Statehouse, the cost of gas for the 60-mile round trip tops out at about half that.
A lawmaker driving a Hummer, which averages between 14 and 18 miles per gallon, would pay just under $13 per round trip. A lawmaker driving a fuel-efficient Toyota Corolla would pay just under $7 per round trip.
The cost to take the commuter rail from Lowell to Boston is $13.50 per round trip.
Supporters of the perk say it puts legislators on an equal playing field when it comes to travel costs. Lawmakers from western Massachusetts incur additional expenses if they spend the night in Boston during busy weeks during the legislative session.
Some opponents argue that most private-sector and state workers are not reimbursed for the costs to travel to work. They also say the state cannot afford the stipends due to shrinking revenues and budget cuts.
Area lawmakers who have not taken a per diem this year include state Sens. Eileen Donoghue, D-Lowell; Barry Finegold, D-Andover; Ken Donnelly, D-Arlington; Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton; and Susan Fargo, D-Lincoln; as well as Reps. Marc Lombardo, R-Billerica; Sheila Harrington, R-Groton; Paul Adams, R-Andover; and Charles Murphy, D-Burlington.
“A lot of people don’t get paid to drive in and out of work," Donoghue said. "It’s a tough economic time, and it’s not something I have any plans to take.”
Still, Donoghue said there is a "rational basis" to giving lawmakers who travel long distances to Boston a per diem.
Lombardo said lawmakers should examine the amount paid to legislators "who live close to the Statehouse."
“It’s not something I’ve thought about taking," he said. "I’m just going to work, doing my job. I went up to Beacon Hill not to be part of the system, but to change the culture. This is just one way I can lead by example.”
Neither Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo, D-Winthrop, nor Senate President Therese Murray, D-Plymouth, has opted to take a per diem in 2011.
DeLeo declined to comment on the issue through a spokesman.
A Murray spokesman wrote in an email that taking the payment is “a personal choice,” and “some senators have to travel very far.”