Politics blog

Senate panel agrees to raise members' per diem to $120, matching House rate

OlympianMarch 25, 2014 

Daily expense reimbursements are going up to $120 a day for Senate members starting April 1. The decision on Tuesday by the Senate Facilities and Operations Committee, which oversees internal Senate operations, raises the expense allotment by $30 and matches what the House did at the start of the legislative session in January.

Members can collect the reimbursements while traveling on state business – whether to the Capitol or elsewhere in the state. Also decided Tuesday was a $10 raise in reimbursements to $40 a day for those legislative assistants that work in a lawmaker’s district most of the year but travel to Olympia during sessions. The House rate is $35.

Democratic Sen. Karen Fraser of Thurston County does not take per diem during session, but she was among those supporting the change in policy. 

“There are a number of members – not all, but some – who have to subsidize their being here with their personal assets. Some are easily able to do that; for others it’s a financial hardship…So it gets down to what kind of democracy you want to have,’’ Fraser said, noting she wants to see people from diverse economic backgrounds in the Senate. “I think there is an interest in having broader rather than narrower representation. … I don’t take per diem but I sit and I listen to the variety of circumstances of people.’’

The 4-to-3 vote split almost along party lines on the Senate F&O, as Rachel LaCorte of The Associated Press reports here:

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — A Senate committee voted Tuesday to give an extra $30 a day to senators and an additional $10 daily increase to legislative assistants while the Legislature is in session. The bipartisan Senate Facilities and Operations Committee voted 4-3 to approve the increase, with Republican Sen. Don Benton, the committee's chairman, casting the deciding vote in support. Also voting in support were: Sens. Karen Fraser, D-Olympia, Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, and Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island. Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, and Sens. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, and Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee, all voted against the measure. The Senate vote also increases legislative assistant per diems from $30 a day to $40 a day. All except Fraser participated in the meeting by conference call. The move follows action taken earlier this year by the House to increase representatives' daily stipend — known as a per diem — from $90 a day to $120 a day. That vote was retroactive, so House lawmakers received an increase of $1,800 during this year's 60-day session, which ended March 13. The Senate vote is effective April 1, but the increase will only be added while lawmakers are in session. Next year's legislative session is scheduled for 105 days, which means that lawmakers will see a $3,150 increase. Tuesday's vote was the first Senate per-diem increase since 2005, when it increased from $82 to $90 a day. Fraser, who made the motion for the per-diem increase, noted that she doesn't take a per diem during session, and she said that other lawmakers could similarly choose to not take the increase if they wanted. Fraser said that she has talked to lawmakers who have faced financial problems during session and that the Senate should be at the same level as the House.

"If you're going to have a democracy with people from a wide variety of lifestyles elected so we can represent all the people, we need to enable people to be here and not make it a financial sacrifice for those who have less, rather than more, personal income," she said.

Hatfield cited his own personal situation, and he noted that the legislative per diem hasn't been raised for years. If senators had gotten an increase at the same time the House did, that would have helped him with his credit-card bill, which includes legislative expenses, Hatfield said.

"We don't need to get rich being a public official. But we sure as hell shouldn't go broke," he said.

But the lawmakers who were opposed said that there should be a more comprehensive look at compensation, including for those who have to travel farther distances to get to the Capitol.

"I think this is the wrong message at the wrong time," Schoesler said.

Tom, who is wealthy, took shots at the House in February, saying that House Democrats were supposedly worried about income equality but had left district aides to fend on far less than members. He said the House action ended up being better for the "ruling class" than the working class, and on Tuesday he put out a news release that said he's asked to keep his reimbursements at $90.

Fraser said Tuesday: "We don’t want the Senate to be the house of wealthy lords.’’

This post has been updated.

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