State senators Don Benton, R-Vancouver, and Joseph Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, each accepted the maximum allowance for expenses such as food and lodging during the first week of the special legislative session in Olympia, according to state records.
Meanwhile, state Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, did not accept any such money from the state for the week, which spanned March 12-18. Pridemore spent the week traveling the state as part of his campaign for state auditor.
Gov. Chris Gregoire called for the special session so lawmakers could continue to figure out the state’s operating budget — something they could not agree on during the regular 60-day legislative session that ended March 8. Lawmakers are given up to $630 a week to cover certain living expenses incurred during the special session.
So far, the special session has been “pro forma,” meaning no voting or legislative action is taking place. Instead, Democratic and Republican legislators involved in the budget process and the governor are meeting in private to try to reach an agreement on the state’s spending.
Zarelli is the ranking Republican member on the Senate Ways and Means Committee and has been involved in the closed-door budget talks. He was the architect of the contentious budget Republicans and three conservative Democrats passed through the Senate near the end of the regular session.
Pridemore is also on the Senate’s budgeting committee. Benton is not.
Benton said on Thursday that lawmakers getting a $90 a day per diem is typical during session. Most senators have continued to receive the allowance “because the expenses of them being in session continues,” he said.
Thirty-three of the 49 senators accepted at least some per diem allowance during the first week of session, and their per diem costs totaled $16,380. Twenty-one accepted the maximum per diem.
Benton said he is staying in Olympia during the pro forma session so he can be ready at a moment’s notice once legislation requires voting. He also said he has been attending caucus briefings and meeting with lobbyists nearly every day during the special session.
Benton said media organizations are skewering lawmakers for taking this per diem, but “if we didn’t work the first five weeks on gay marriage, we’d be finished with the session by now.”
Leading Senate Democrats should have focused more on finding enough votes to pass a budget, he said.
While Republicans have pointed a finger at Democrats for causing the special session, Democrats have blamed Republicans, saying the recent Republican takeover of the Senate led to the special session.
On the afternoon of March 2, minority Senate Republicans gained support from three philosophically conservative Senate Democrats and used an uncommon procedural move to pass their own budget. This new budget stalled in the House, which has a stronger Democratic majority.
Although Pridemore is on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, he said he has not been involved in budget talks because that typically takes place among the committee’s leadership members. He said that once the regular session ended, he stopped renting the Olympia-area room he was staying in.
“It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to take the per diem,” he said Thursday.
Per diem records for House members haven’t been released yet.