A wealthy lawmaker who leads the state Senate’s coalition majority criticized the House on Monday, suggesting the chamber was showing deference to the “ruling class” by giving a 33 percent increase in expense allowances to its members.
Sen. Rodney Tom, a Democrat who lives in the enclave of Medina and leads the Republican-dominated Senate Majority Coalition caucus, said legislative aides get by on a $35-per-day expense allowance when they relocate to Olympia during legislative sessions. He said that’s well below the $90 “per diem” given to Senate members and far below the $120 that House leaders recently agreed to give their members as of Jan. 1.
Tom said he was surprised that the House raised the expense limit, which both Republican and Democratic leaders agreed to last month, and shocked that nothing was done for staffers. He also took a swipe at House Democrats who have called for raising the state’s minimum wage as a way to help low-wage workers out of poverty.
"One, until there is parity, it seems weird to me that they would raise their own (cost allowances),” Tom said. "There's a lot of talk about helping the working class. But the ruling class was the beneficiary on this one.''
Of course, some leaders in the Senate were also talking about raising the per diem rate for their members. But the Senate suddenly canceled a meeting last Thursday of its internal operations group known as the Senate Facilities and Operations Committee before the discussion could come up. Tom serves on that obscure panel that makes decisions on internal Senate policy questions such as personnel.
Tom said he did not know why the meeting was canceled, and Secretary of the Senate Hunter Goodman said he was unaware of any specific Senate proposal to raise expense reimbursements.
But Democratic Sen. Karen Fraser of Thurston County said the per diem issue was potentially up for discussion. Fraser is Democratic caucus chair and serves on the committee with Tom and a few other leaders. She said Democratic leaders did not want to proceed until talking to members of their caucus and that GOP members were not ready either.
Fraser, who lives near Olympia, is one of a minority of lawmakers that usually does not claim reimbursements of expenses while in session.
House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, could not be reached right away to comment on Tom’s criticisms but he has had concerns about cost pressures on lawmakers who end up spending their own money just to serve in the Legislature.
Rep. Joel Kretz, who is deputy leader of House Republicans, took offense at Tom’s suggestion, describing it as throwing the House leaders “under the bus’’ for political reasons.
Kretz, a rancher from Wauconda in remote northeast Washington, said the new House reimbursement rate is still well below the federal expense allowance – which is $155 a day – for staying Thurston County. Many local governments use the federal rate as a basis for reimbursing staffers when they travel to Olympia.
Relocating to Olympia is more of a hardship for some lawmakers, and Kretz said he lost close to $25,000 last year when the Legislature remained in session through June and his horse-selling business went to the wayside.
But Kretz agreed with Tom that legislative assistants who relocate during sessions to Olympia should also get more per diem – something he’s pushed for in the past because he considers it a hardship for his legislative aide, who has two young children.
Kretz said it has been hard to get support from the Legislature for raising aides’ expense allotment. That is because there is disagreement among lawmakers about the practice of having in-district offices, which some lawmakers have and some do not. In his case, Kretz said it is important to have an aide who knows his rural district and lives there most of the year.
Although aides’ reimbursements remain at $35, Kretz said the House Executive Rules Committee did act to raise the base pay of legislative aides this year in order to become more competitive with the Senate. Kretz said the Senate enjoys a much larger budget per legislator and is able to pay its staffers more than the House does.
Despite his comments, Tom is not proposing any specific increase in reimbursements to staff at this time. But he said any changes in per diem rates should start with staffers and be phased in over time.
Bernard Dean, the deputy chief clerk of the House, said the per-diem increase approved by Executive Rules members in the House comes out of the chamber’s existing budget. It would not require an increased appropriation.