By Kevin Landrigan
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
State Rep. Robert Wheeler, R-Goffstown, said its 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 dont 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
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,
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 thats 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 courts proposal would retain most of the savings,
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.