(AP) - The maximum daily allowances for meals and incidental costs for state senators jumped from $66 to $96, a 45 percent increase. In the House, the rate climbed to $77. Both chambers also sweetened housing reimbursement programs for members who have to uproot during the session.
"We're all entitled to a little cost of living allowance now and again," said Rep. Ron Erhardt, R-Edina.
The cost to taxpayers depends on how many senators collect checks and how many choose to take less than the maximum. Lawmakers can take per diem payments seven days a week while the Legislature is in session, which is due to run 140 days in 2007. They don't have to produce receipts.
We're all entitled to a little cost of living allowance now and again.Rep. Ron Erhardt, R-Edina
If all 201-members took the full amount - an unlikely scenario - the added cost on per diems alone would approach $500,000 for the 2007 session.
The Senate last adjusted its expense rate in 2001; the House made its most recent change two years ago.
Republican legislators sponsored the increases in both chambers, and Democrats made sure they went through.
The changes were made by both chambers' rules committees, comprised of senior members, and don't require any additional approval. The Senate's increase came on a voice vote with no audible opposition. Four Republicans came up on the short end of a 22-4 vote in the House committee.
The Minnesota Constitution says pay raises can't take effect until after the election when they are passed into law. But that provision traditionally has been applied to general salaries and not expense allowances.
Rep. Mark Buesgens, R-Jordan, argued that the boost stretches the constitutional bar.
"I don't believe we should be backdooring" a pay increase, he said. He added, "If $77 a day is what's needed for food, that's some awful rich eating."
For individual senators, the change means a possible $4,200 more this year for meal expenses. For House members, the extra allowance adds up to $1,540 more in 2007.
Sen. Dick Day, R-Owatonna, said he's uneasy with the height of the new expense ceiling.
"It is steep there's no doubt about that - awfully steep," said Day, who doesn't sit on the rules committee and didn't vote on the increase. "I never ran for office thinking I was going to get a raise. I knew what the wages were. We all did."
Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, said he doesn't consider the bump to be a backdoor pay increase.
"It's reasonable to expect that members be reimbursed for reasonable expenses," he said.
Standard House and Senate salaries have been stuck at $31,140 since 1999, although leaders get an extra stipend.
Pogemiller and House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, said lawmakers should consider raising legislative and executive branch pay to make public service more attractive.
"We don't want a Legislature of only those who can afford to be legislators," Sertich said.
Only two senators - John Marty of Roseville and Dick Cohen of St. Paul, both Democrats - had previously informed Senate budget officers that they would take less than the maximum in per diem. Sen. Don Betzold, DFL-Fridley, refuses per diem for weekends and holidays.
In the House, about three dozen members took less than the maximum during the 2006 session, said Paul Schweizer, the House controller.
The housing checks go to members whose regular homes are at least 50 miles from the Capitol. They can rent apartments and receive reimbursements for their actual costs. The new monthly maximum is $1,200, an amount that is paid out year-round.
Twenty-eight of 67 senators now collect the allowance, and 11 senators had rents that exceeded the old $900 maximum, Senate officials said.
The House had been at $1,200 before, but the committee cleared the way for its members to collect the housing money for the full year instead of the six-month window previously in place. That change would cost the state an extra $410,000 a year if the 57 House members now receiving rent reimbursement were to seek the full reimbursement.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)