Politics & Government

Cost of state lawmakers’ special session: $108,000 and counting

State lawmakers’ failure to reach a budget deal has cost taxpayers $108,000 in overtime costs so far — and the bills are still rolling in.

During the Legislature’s 30-day special session that ended Thursday, lawmakers claimed nearly $90,000 in per diem payments to cover their daily session expenses, according to a News Tribune review of legislative records. Lawmakers requested another $18,000 in mileage reimbursements for driving to and from meetings at the Capitol.

Those numbers are incomplete and sure to grow, as the Senate’s expense records weren’t available for the last four days of the special session, and the House is still calculating members’ payments for the past two weeks.

Lawmakers began a second overtime session Friday that will add even more costs.

On top of their salaries, state lawmakers can claim per diem payments of $120 a day during legislative sessions to cover expenses such as food and lodging in Olympia. State law says a legislator is entitled to receive the payments for days “in which he or she is actually engaged in legislative business.”

Exactly what that means is open to interpretation, said Bernard Dean, deputy chief clerk of the state House of Representatives.

During the special session, some members of the House and Senate claimed per diems even on weekends and other slow workdays when rank-and-file members weren't required to be in Olympia. Four senators and four representatives claimed their $120 payments on multiple Saturdays and Sundays.

Meanwhile, some leaders involved in continuing budget negotiations at the Capitol took less than they were entitled to, or rejected the per diem payments entirely. Ten senators accepted no per diem payments during the special session, while 18 House members claimed no per diem during the weeks for which records were available.

Members who declined per diem payments included legislative leaders such as House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle; Senate budget writer Andy Hill, R-Redmond; and Senate Floor Leader Joe Fain, R-Auburn.

“As a rule, I don’t take per diems during special session. I just think we should have gotten our job done, and it’s my own little personal punishment,” said Hill, a former Microsoft software engineer who chairs the Senate Ways & Means Committee.

Others who accepted per diem payments on weekends said they rely on the daily allowance to pay ongoing costs such as rent for a secondary residence in Olympia. Those expenses don’t go away just because meetings and floor actions at the Capitol slow down during special sessions, said Sen. Brian Dansel, R-Republic.

“For me, it’s actually easier to stay here than drive back and forth,” said Dansel, a former Ferry County commissioner who lives a more than seven hours’ drive from Olympia.

Dansel was one of two senators who accepted per diem payments for every day of the special session, including weekends. The other was Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D-Seattle.

Both senators collected $3,120 in per diem payments for the first 26 days of the special session, the most of any of their Senate colleagues. Neither chairs a committee or is directly involved in the ongoing budget negotiations.

Hasegawa said he is unable to do his regular job as a union construction operating engineer while the Legislature is in session, and relies solely on his legislative salary of $42,106 and the per diem to cover all his expenses.

“I’m always down here, and always available if not here,” said Hasegawa, who said he was in Olympia four to five days a week during the first special session.

Other senators who took per diem payments for most days of the special session, including most weekends, were Republican Sens. Michael Baumgartner of Spokane and Doug Ericksen of Ferndale.

Hill, who doesn’t take per diems, said he understands that maintaining regular jobs for many members is difficult during special sessions since members are “on a 24-hour-leash” to return to the Capitol to vote on short notice.

Rep. Jay Rodne, R-North Bend, said he and other members also carry out legislative business in their home districts, even if they are away from Olympia during special sessions.

Rodne claimed $1,800 in per diems during the first 15 days of the special session, or the full $120 for each of the days for which the House provided records. So did Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, and Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane.

“There is not a day that goes by that I am not doing some legislative work,” said Rodne, who said he has been in Olympia “several days a week” during the special session. He, too, maintained a second residence in the capital throughout the special session, he said.

Another rank-and-file House member, Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self, D-Mukilteo, also claimed several weekend days.

Dean, the House deputy chief clerk, said there’s no requirement that House members have meetings scheduled in Olympia on days they collect per diem. Contrary to the rules set for most state employees, lawmakers don’t actually have to be away from home or traveling to claim their $120 daily allowance, Dean said.

“They don’t have to be here to be conducting legislative business necessarily,” Dean said, noting that some lawmakers may participate in conference calls from afar or meet with constituents in their districts.

“We don’t make a judgment or validate the extent to which they’re conducting legislative business,” Dean said.

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said the per diem helps ensure that people who aren’t rich can still afford to serve in the Legislature. Sullivan, who said he doesn’t have another job outside his work as a legislative leader, collected per diem on weekdays — but not weekends — during the special session.

“If this is truly a citizen legislature, where we’re expecting people to come down here and serve, then there has to be some kind of ability to do so,” Sullivan said. “Some of the members don’t actually make a lot outside of Olympia.”

Hasegawa said taking per diem every day during special sessions drives him to actually be in Olympia consistently — something he hopes will help push budget negotiators to get their work done.

“Because I am collecting the per diems, I do want to be here,” Hasegawa said. “When everyone’s out of town, there’s no one putting the pressure on.”