Senator criticizes House hike in per diem

Tom says $35 per day for aides should go up first

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Local lawmakers call higher allowance "realistic," but express qualms about the process of granting it.

Local lawmakers call higher allowance “realistic,” but express qualms about the process of granting it.

A wealthy lawmaker who leads the state Senate’s coalition majority criticized the House on Monday, suggesting the chamber was showing deference to the “ruling class” by giving a 33 percent increase in expense allowances to its members.

Sen. Rodney Tom, a Democrat who lives in the enclave of Medina and leads the Republican-dominated Senate Majority Coalition caucus, said legislative aides get by on a $35-per-day expense allowance when they relocate to Olympia during legislative sessions, well below the $90 “per diem” given to Senate members and the $120 that House leaders recently agreed to give their members as of Jan. 1.

Tom said he was surprised that the House raised the expense limit, which both Republican and Democratic leaders agreed to last month, and shocked that nothing was done for staffers. He also took a swipe at House Democrats who have called for raising the state’s minimum wage as a way to help low-wage workers out of poverty.

“One, until there is parity, it seems weird to me that they would raise their own (cost allowances),” Tom said. “There’s a lot of talk about helping the working class. But the ruling class was the beneficiary on this one.”

Of course, some Senate leaders were also talking about raising the per diem rate for their members. But the topic has not been brought up before its internal operations group, the Senate Facilities and Operations Committee.

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, could not be reached right away to comment on Tom’s criticisms but he has had concerns about cost pressures on lawmakers who end up spending their own money just to serve in the Legislature.

Rep. Joel Kretz, deputy leader of House Republicans, took offense at Tom’s suggestion.

Kretz, a rancher from Wauconda in remote northeast Washington, said the new House reimbursement rate is still well below the federal expense allowance — $155 a day — for staying in Thurston County.

Relocating to Olympia is more of a hardship for some lawmakers, and Kretz said he lost close to $25,000 last year when the Legislature remained in session through June and his horse-selling business went by the wayside.

But Kretz agreed with Tom that legislative assistants who relocate during sessions to Olympia should also get more per diem — something he’s pushed for in the past; his legislative aide has two young children.

Kretz said it has been hard to get support from the Legislature for raising aides’ expense allotment. That is because there is disagreement among lawmakers about the practice of having in-district offices. In his case, Kretz said, it is important to have an aide who knows his rural district and lives there most of the year.

Kretz said the House Executive Rules Committee did act to raise the base pay of legislative aides this year in order to become more competitive with the Senate. Kretz said the Senate enjoys a much larger budget per legislator and is able to pay its staffers more than the House does.

Tom is not proposing any specific increase in reimbursements to staff.