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Bill would repeal N.H. state mileage payment law

By Kevin Landrigan
Nashua Telegraph

CONCORD, N.H. – Judges and court reporters should be unable to have taxpayers pay for their commute to and from home, said a lawmaker sponsoring a bill to repeal the long-standing practice.

State Rep. Robert Wheeler, R-Goffstown, said it’s common practice for private companies to reimburse an employee for mileage, but not from their residence.

“It is my belief that people who are employed by the state of New Hampshire should be entitled to reimbursement the same as folks working anywhere else, no less but no more either,” Wheeler told the House Finance Committee.

Supreme Court General Counsel Howard Zibel said court administrators are willing to cut back on these payments, but they propose judges in all the courts should get compensation for travel that is more than 25 miles each way to court.

“I don’t think we should penalize public servants who, due to the nature of the job, have an unusually long commute to work,” Zibel said.

The bill resulted from a Legislative Budget Audit report in December that disclosed 58 Supreme and Superior court judges, court reporters and marital masters were paid nearly $140,000 in 2002 to commute to and from work.

Judges have gotten these payments since the early 1900s back during a time when judges had to travel to a circuit of courts to preside over courts in the state. Today, only two Superior Court judges and one court reporter travel to more than one location.

The audit also found an unnamed, Superior Court justice got $1,772 in untaxed mileage payments in violation of federal tax regulations and six marital masters got $13,584 in commuting mileage they were not entitled to get according to court rules.

Zibel noted the payments to marital masters were discontinued once the audit revealed them and the judge who mistakenly got untaxed mileage payments has since amended his tax return.

“We have complied with what the Legislature instructed over the years and what the Internal Revenue Service requires,” Zibel said.

Any mileage paid to and from home is taxable under IRS regulations.

The bill would save the state $101,056 in mileage payments.

Zibel said that’s less than judges received in the past because mileage payments were trimmed from 37 cents a mile to 30 cents a mile as one of several, court budget-cutting moves last fall.

The court’s proposal would retain most of the savings, Zibel said.

Three of the five Supreme Court justices travel more than 25 miles to Concord and two of the 28 Superior Court justices have as much of a commute, Zibel said.

State Rep. Daniel Eaton, D-Keene, questioned if it was proper for the Legislature to crack down on this practice since the taxpayer pays mileage for lawmakers to come from home to Concord.

Wheeler answered, “It has a lot to do with how we get compensated for public service.”

New Hampshire lawmakers get $100 a year, the lowest pay in the nation and mileage money is one way legislators are able to afford to come and serve.

Rep. Ned Densmore, D-Franconia, said many hundreds of state employees get to use state cars to commute from home to work.

Zibel said the bill as written would also repeal all reimbursement for “actual personal expenses” on the job such as meals or conference fees for judges.

He suggested any changes in law should only apply to new judges since those on the bench took the job with the understanding that mileage payments would be covered.