Two local lawmakers find new per diem rate 'realistic'

Despite qualms about process, they will accept raise

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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State lawmakers representing Clark County have expressed mixed feelings about House members' food and lodging expense allowance jumping from $90 per day to $120.

Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, said he's OK with the increase to the daily allowance, called "per diem." The cost of spending so much time in Olympia — some lawmakers rent temporary housing there while in session — can be difficult to cover, he said. Harris plans to accept the increased allowance.

"This will make it easier as far as living expenses," he said.

Harris said the action should have happened with more transparency, though. The House Executive Committee reportedly made the decision last month, and made it apply retroactively to Jan. 1.

"We didn't have anything to do with it," Harris said. "Honestly, it was a complete surprise to all of us."

Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, also plans to accept the higher rate "because it covers the realistic costs of being in session and being available for session," she said in an email. The cost of lodging has increased in recent years, for example, while the per diem rate stayed the same until now, Wylie said.

Wylie said she, too, found out about the per diem increase only after the session was underway. "If it was up to me, I probably would not have increased it at this time," she said. "Some of the public is already critical of our compensation, the economy has still not fully recovered and staff members who locate here during the session were not included."

Other local legislators could not immediately be reached for comment late Tuesday.

State Senate members still receive up to $90 in per diem.

Daily expense charges came under particular scrutiny last year while lawmakers haggled over the state operating budget during two overtime sessions totaling 48 days.

Among Clark County legislators, Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, accepted the most per diem payments during last year's special sessions. He accepted per diem payments for all 48 days, totaling $4,320. Other taxpayer-funded per diem claims by local legislators ranged from nothing to just over $2,000.