Despite budget woes, many lawmakers collected expense payments

Minnesota State Capitol
The State Capitol in a May 2010 file photo.
MPR File Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

As many lawmakers were calling for holding the line on state spending during the legislative session, they were taking expense payments that cost taxpayers a total of nearly $2 million.

Nearly every member of the House and Senate took the daily payments, known as per diem.

Check out details of expense reports from the Senate and House.

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The 2011 legislative session was capped with Republican buzzwords like "holding the line on spending," "not a penny more" and "living within our means."

As the session started in January, Republicans in the Minnesota Senate announced they would set an example by scaling back the daily expense payments legislators can collect. At the time, Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, said the Senate would save about $100,000 a year by reducing the per diem rate from $96 a day to $86 a day.

"We know that there are going to be difficult decisions to be made throughout session and this budget solution is not going to be without some pain," Koch said in January. "We felt, our caucus felt, it was extremely important to start with us first."

Senate expense reports show that the Senate saved $50,000 from the move compared to the 2009 budget session. The Minnesota House spent $77,000 more on daily expenses compared to the session two years ago. Republicans did not change the $77 a day per diem rate when they took control of the House in January.

Per diem is one of the optional expenses that lawmakers can take in addition to their annual salary of $31,140. During the 2011 session, 72 lawmakers took the maximum amount of per diem; 40 of them are Republicans and 32 are Democrats.

"This is for the session, my job. I have no other job at this point in time."

"This is for the session, my job. I have no other job at this point in time," said Sen. Mike Parry, R-Waseca. "I'm here to do the work of the people, and I believe what has been established is fair." Parry is one of the lawmakers that took the maximum amount — which added up to $12,040 for the session.

Parry, who chairs the Senate State Government Finance Committee, said lawmakers put in long hours and that the per diem is a part of the salary package for each legislator. He said he would be open to eliminating daily expenses in exchange for higher pay.

"I would suggest that per diem go away, but that we come up with a salary that would match the needs of the person coming up here," he said. "You get it too low [and] people can't afford to come up here unless they have deep pockets or are very wealthy like the governor."

Three lawmakers opted to take no per diem during the legislative session. Two were House Democrats, Steve Simon of St. Louis Park and Tina Liebling of Rochester, and one was a Senate Republican, Roger Chamberlain of Lino Lakes.

Chamberlain said he opted against taking per diem payments because the state is having budget problems and he wanted to lead by example. He also said the private sector doesn't compensate employees that way.

"Companies and private employers do not pay the employee per diem to drive to work and then give them extra money on top of their salary and wages to have lunch and dinner," Chamberlain said. "I didn't do it here and I didn't do it there. It's not only the leadership point in setting the example but changing the way we look at government and what government does."

Chamberlain is careful to note that every lawmaker is in a different situation when it comes to salary and expenses. It's not clear how many lawmakers will opt to take daily expenses if Gov. Dayton calls a special session to finish work on the budget.