Local Politics

State Lawmakers Soaking Up Thousands In Per Diem Pay

SPOKANE, Wash. - The Washington State Legislature is more than halfway though a special session in Olympia. That session itself is costing taxpayers around half a million dollars, and you might surprised where some of that money is going.

The legislators' inability to pass a budget is costing taxpayers more money. One of the reasons why? Lawmakers get per diem, at the rate of $90 a day, for travel to and from Olympia from their home districts, for an apartment while they're in Olympia, and for food.

But what was surprising is that lawmakers who live in and represent Olympia in the state legislature are using just as much per diem as lawmakers from Spokane.

Right now, State Representative Kevin Parker is sleeping on a couch, and it's not even his couch.

"My office was a temp building this year, so my office has been taken down, so I can't sleep in my own office. I have to sleep in someone else's office," Parker said.

Why is a state representative, a successful businessman, acting like a college student, crashing at a buddy's place?

"I do not take per diem in a special session," he explained.

Parker, like many lawmakers, is refusing the $90 per diem state law allows them for travel, lodging and food. He simply won't take it during the special session. So when he's in Olympia he sleeps wherever there's a spare couch.

"Basically we're in overtime and that costs the taxpayers a lot of money," he said.

The 105 days prescribed by law for the regular session, time to argue and pass bills, time to make cuts, and most importantly, time to pass a budget, have elapsed and the legislature is still meeting at a cost of up to $18,000 a day.

So how much are these legislators, who failed to pass a budget on time, getting paid?

Each member of the state legislature is paid $42,160, the 13th highest salary for legislators in the nation. On top of that each legislator gets $90 per diem for travel and lodging.

To put it in perspective Washington's per diem is the lowest of any state in the west.

Utah's per diem is $167 a day, California's is $162, Oregon's is $116 and Montana's is $103 a day.

Idaho's is $122 for legislators living outside of Boise, and $45 a day in Boise.

"Per Diem is a daily benefit sitting legislators receive. It was originally designed for Eastern Washington legislators traveling from all the way across the state," Parker said.

Now, state accountants don't have the numbers from this special session yet, but last year 21 of 49 Washington senators and 27 of 98 representatives refused their per diem in the special session.

But no one refuses it in the regular session, including legislators who live in Olympia year-round.

Take for example Olympia Representative Samuel Hunt, who received $5,130 in per diem - for lodging, travel and food - during the legislative session.

Hunt lives about four miles from his office. Several messages were left at Representative Hunt's office to ask why he took per diem when he lives five minutes from work. Those messages have not been returned.

Olympia Representative Chris Reykdal also received $5,130 for lodging, travel and food expenses this year.

Reykdal lives about four miles from his office. Representative Reykdal's office did respond but declined to say what exactly he used $5,130 dollars of per diem for when he lives five minutes from work. Officials in Reykdal's office did confirm that the representative uses his per diem ''for the purposes prescribed by law," which means he used it for lodging, travel and food.

They aren't the only ones. Several legislators from both parties live within an hour of the state capitol took anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 in per diem each of the last three years.

To be fair, while Representative Parker refused to take per diem during the special session, he did take $5,700 during the regular legislative session. He took $600 more than legislators who live in Olympia within five minutes of their offices.

Parker, on the other hand, lives about 320 miles and five and a half hours away from his office.

"My rule of thumb in the state legislature, is Republican or Democrat or Independent is to never question motive but fight for your ideas," Parker said.

There is no way to find out exactly what legislators spend their per diem on. They get a check for per diem every few weeks, but they aren't required to turn in any receipts to insure they are spending that money on lodging, travel or food.