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Some Washington state legislators pocket thousands in extra-session expense payments
The seattle times, september 11, 2017
By Joseph O’Sullivan, Seattle Times Olympia bureau
Fourteen Washington state lawmakers took home more than $20,000 to pay for expenses in this year’s record-long legislative session, state House and Senate records show.
OLYMPIA — With the Washington Legislature this spring and summer mostly mired in gridlock, Democratic state Sen. Bob Hasegawa cranked up his campaign to become Seattle’s next mayor.
But as he attended debates and community events in his bid to replace Ed Murray, Hasegawa continued to collect the $120 in daily expenses, commonly called per diem, that lawmakers routinely take while the Legislature is in session.
Apart from four days around his official campaign kickoff in May, Hasegawa claimed his expenses every day possible during this year’s legislative season, state records show.
That added up to $22,680 for Hasegawa across lawmakers’ record-long 193 days in Olympia, which included a trio of contentious, 30-day overtime special sessions.
Hasegawa was among 14 legislators this year who claimed more than $20,000 in expenses, according to a review of state House and Senate records.
Per diem, per district
With state lawmakers using three special legislative sessions to finish their work this year, some House and Senate members collected more money than ever for session expenses. Lawmakers can claim up to $120 a day in per diem to help cover housing, food and other costs while in session, whether or not they are actually in Olympia. Click on the legislative districts in this map to see how much per diem each lawmaker claimed. The districts are color-coded based on total expenses claimed by all state lawmakers in the district.
That’s in addition to the $46,839 annual salary that rank-and-file lawmakers receive this year for their work in the part-time Legislature, as well as reimbursement for mileage.
During this year’s overtime sessions, most lawmakers headed home to their districts. A handful of legislators, meanwhile, continued working in Olympia to negotiate a new state budget, a court-ordered school-funding plan and other legislation.
Hasegawa wasn’t among the key negotiators. But he said he spent at least one day a week in Olympia during the special sessions.
“I was campaigning in Seattle,” said Hasegawa, who didn’t advance past the August primary. But, “I was still trying to tend to my legislative responsibilities as well.”
He cited his reputation as a senator who diligently studies legislation and noted his victory this year in getting money into the budget to study a long-sought priority: a state bank.
“Every day, even on the weekends, I’m probably spending eight hours a day” on legislative business, said Hasegawa. Like many lawmakers, Hasegawa added that he rents a place to stay in Olympia while the Legislature is in session.
Breakdown of expenses claimed by some Washington state lawmakers by those receiving over $20,000 per diem for legislative season and those receiving less than $10,000 per diem for legislative season.
The list of those claiming more than $20,000 in expenses includes Republicans and Democrats, longtime legislators and freshmen. Some represent districts east of the Cascade mountains, far from the Capitol. Others live an hour or so from Olympia.
Few lawmakers who collected that much, however, played key roles in this year’s high-profile negotiations for the new two-year state budget or court-ordered K-12 school-funding plan.
The expenses are lawful, but lawmakers take very different approaches to how much they claim.
Some take every penny possible, or close to it. Others say they only claim their per diem when they’re physically in Olympia. Still others decline to collect expenses for the overtime sessions.
Many lawmakers seen at the Capitol during the grinding negotiations of the overtime sessions took home less than $20,000 in per diem.
That includes Democrats House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan of Covington and Sen. Christine Rolfes of Bainbridge Island, and Republicans Rep. David Taylor of Moxee and Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville.
One lawmaker, Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, the GOP’s chief budget writer, didn’t claim any expenses.
All told, about 60 lawmakers drew more than $15,000 each in per diem this year. The expenses help pay for such costs as meals and housing during the sessions. Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers defend their use of the money.
The long legislative sessions require some legislators to take unpaid leave from their regular jobs. Others say they provide the only income in their family, or they deserve fair compensation for work that sometimes takes place around the clock, both in Olympia and back home.
Still, some say expense payments can be too generous.
“My general feeling is, they should only be able to collect per diem for days they are actually present in Olympia,” said Toby Nixon, a former Republican state representative and current president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government.
Braun said he doesn’t want the job of legislator to be so burdensome that ordinary people shy away from it.
But when it comes to per diems, “I personally think that some of that is, frankly, abused,” said Braun, a business owner who lives a half-hour or so from Olympia. “And that happens on all sides of the aisle.”
“I took an oath to be there”
During three months of overtime sessions, which began in late April, only a handful of Washington’s 147 lawmakers were intimately involved in critical negotiations.
Throughout spring, eight lawmakers met regularly in a conference room to hammer out a school-funding plan intended to resolve the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision, which said the state underfunded K-12 education.
A handful of other lawmakers negotiated a paid-family leave plan, or labored unsuccessfully to advance rural water-use legislation and a capital construction budget.
Meanwhile, many legislative committees didn’t hold a single meeting after the regularly scheduled session ended in late April, state records show.
The committees that held meetings did so no more than a handful of times over the three months of overtime sessions.
The dearth of legislators in Olympia was so pronounced it prompted a story in May by The News Tribune of Tacoma headlined, “Lawmakers need to fix schools. So why aren’t they at the Capitol?”
That report cited Schoesler defending the absence of lawmakers by saying it would save on expense costs.
“Why would we ask the taxpayers to pay per diem for 98 House members and 49 senators if they’re not actively involved in the budget?” Schoesler told The News Tribune.
But lawmakers claiming larger expense reimbursements say they’re working even when they’re not in Olympia — or they need the money to make ends meet.
Sen. Brad Hawkins, R-East Wenatchee, who collected $23,160 in per diem, took unpaid leave from his job at the Douglas County PUD for about seven months this year.
Hawkins said he moved his family to Olympia and put his two children in the public school system.
“Keeping our family unit together was really important,” he said, adding that he provides the sole income for his family this year.
“In some ways, the idea that these positions are part-time public positions is a bit of a sham,” Hawkins said. He does legislative work year-round, he said.
“The reality is, I can barely afford to do it,” said Hawkins. “I could not do this job without the per diem.”
Sen. Maralyn Chase, D-Shoreline, said she spent most of the legislative season living in Olympia in a rented apartment.
“I took an oath to be there when the Legislature is in session,” said Chase, who collected $21,000 in expenses. “So I’m there.”
Chase said she used the time during special sessions to do work that isn’t possible in the regular session, when lawmakers shuttle between committee meetings and votes on the Senate floor.
“You can’t really do a lot of this heavy-duty policy work when everybody’s running around in committees,” said Chase, who in the second special session introduced a bill to create a universal, single-payer health-care system in Washington.
Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn, said the unpredictability of not knowing when he’d be needed during the special sessions affected his regular job training contractors and others on complying with environmental standards.
“Here’s the thing that bothers me: I don’t want the special sessions, I don’t want this limbo,” said Fortunato, who collected $22,080 in expenses. “You can’t go anywhere, you can’t do anything.”
Rep. Eric Pettigrew, a Democrat who represents South Seattle, defended the expenses, saying he believes lawmakers should be properly reimbursed.
Pettigrew, who collected $23,160 in per diem, is caucus chair, which requires him to run meetings with lawmakers and deal with some internal personnel issues.
“I don’t shut down my email or … my cellphone, at 5 o’clock on Friday,” said Pettigrew, who added that he rented a room in Olympia this year.
A frugal approach
Other lawmakers took a more frugal approach with their expenses.
More than a dozen House and Senate members claimed most or all of their allowable expenses during the regular session — but took no per diem in the overtime sessions.
Those included Seattle Democrats House Speaker Frank Chopp and Sen. David Frockt, and Republican Sens. Dino Rossi of Sammamish and Joe Fain of Auburn.
Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, claimed $8,760 in expenses this year, including for 13 days across the three overtime sessions.
For special-session days, “I took it when I was required to come to Olympia, specifically,” Carlyle said. “If I was at home doing four conference calls and two memos, I didn’t take it.”
Carlyle defended other lawmakers taking more in per diem.
“It’s hard to be successful in business, or in the private sector … and a successful legislator at the same time,” he said.
In 2015, lawmakers received an 11.2 percent pay raise from the independent commission that sets their salary. The commission this year authorized another 4 percent raise, split evenly between 2017 and 2018.
This year’s 2 percent raise boosts the rank-and-file lawmaker’s annual salary to $47,776. It took effect Sept. 1.