State Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, tops the list of Clark County legislators who accepted the most in state-paid food and lodging allowances during the legislative overtime sessions this year.
The daily allowance, called per diem, provides state lawmakers up to $90 a day to cover meals and rent when they are working in Olympia during legislative sessions. According to state House records, Moeller accepted per diems every day during the 48 days of legislative overtime — a taxpayer cost totaling $4,320. He was the only member of the local delegation to claim expenses for every possible day.
After this year’s regular 105-day ended, legislators were called into a special session on May 13 because they still hadn’t agreed on the state’s 2013-15 operating budget. The first special session lasted the maximum 30 days and was likely the most unproductive legislative session in Washington state history, with zero bills passed, according to the Associated Press.
Legislators then spent 18 more days in a second special session. They passed an operating budget with just two days to spare before triggering a government shutdown.
Moeller, who works as a chemical dependency counselor, said Friday that he relies on the per diems to cover the cost of renting an apartment in Olympia during sessions. He also said those reimbursements help him stay afloat financially.
“As long as I maintain an apartment in Olympia (and I have) double insurance, and double utilities and double mortgages or rent, then I’m going to maintain taking per diem,” Moeller said by phone Friday, adding that he also took a reimbursement for his dry cleaning costs. “Quite honestly, without a per diem, I can’t afford to continue to be a legislator. Maybe others have a different financial situation.”
During both special sessions, state lawmakers accepted more than $256,000 in per diems. Additionally, House members charged more than $42,000 to cover the mileage they put on their vehicles when driving to and from Olympia.
“The House absorbed the cost of the two special sessions out of existing 2013 appropriations and did not seek additional funding to cover these expenses,” House Deputy Chief Clerk Bernard Dean said by email Friday. “Both the House and the Senate typically offset special session expenses with internal efficiency savings or, if necessary, budget reductions.”
State Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, had the second-highest amount in per diems among Clark County legislators. She accepted more than $2,000 in per diem payments during the two special sessions. When it came to mileage reimbursements, Wylie took $550, while Moeller took $102, according to House records.
Senate per diems
In the Senate, Don Benton, R-Vancouver; Curtis King, R-Yakima; and Ann Rivers, R-La Center, each accepted $1,530 in per diem during the special sessions, according to records from the Secretary of the Senate’s office.
Benton, who began working in Vancouver in May as environmental services director for Clark County, accepted per diem for 17 of the 48 special session days. On 12 of the days that he took per diem, he also spent at least some time working for the county.
On a couple of those per diem days, he worked at least 6 hours for the county. On a couple of other days, he worked four hours for the county, and there were some per diem days when he just worked one or two hours.
“I only accept per diem for days that I work for the state and have to spend the night there,” Benton said by phone Friday.
When Benton is on the job for the Legislature, he takes unpaid leave from the county.
Benton also logged about 2,400 miles driving to Olympia and back during the two special sessions. At a reimbursement rate of 57 cents per mile, Benton received about $1,300 from the state to cover his driving expenses during legislative overtime. In the House, representatives get 51 cents per mile.
Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, logged about 1,700 miles traveling to and from Olympia during legislative overtime and was reimbursed about $950 for her driving expenses. Meanwhile, Rivers logged roughly 3,300 miles at a cost of about $1,900. Those numbers could change, because the Senate is still accepting mileage reimbursement requests.
Cleveland said that although she wanted to be reimbursed for the wear and tear on her vehicle, she decided against accepting per diems for the special sessions this year.
“I do feel very strongly that we as elected officials are elected to try to complete our work in the time frames that are given to us,” Cleveland said Friday.
At the same time, Cleveland said she didn’t fault those legislators who did decide to receive the money.
“I have another job in the interim, and I’m able to help subsidize the cost of my serving the Legislature because of that,” she said. “Other legislators don’t have that ability. … We shouldn’t force legislators to have to be able to pay all their own way all the time.”
This year’s lengthy legislative overtime prompted some lawmakers to suggest new ideas to keep their colleagues on deadline. On suggestion: move up the date for the state’s revenue forecast, which could help spur budget negotiation talks sooner. Another lawmaker suggested fining legislators $250 for each day they’re in a special session. There’s also been talk of suspending the $90-a-day per diems during legislative overtime.
Most legislators earn a state salary of $42,106 each year. The House speaker and Senate majority leader each get an annual salary of $50,106, and the House and Senate minority leaders each receive an annual salary of $46,106. Additionally, state lawmakers can file for other reimbursements besides per diems and driving expenses, including printing and mailing costs, other office expenses, dry cleaning and travel.