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Feb. 24, 2024

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Moeller accepts session per diem

He's on unpaid leave from job to handle legislative duties

By , Columbian Assistant Metro Editor

State Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, accepted the maximum allowance for expenses such as food and lodging during the first 15 days of the special session in Olympia, according to state records.

Other Southwest Washington House members — Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, Tim Probst, D-Vancouver, Ann Rivers, R-La Center, and Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver — did not take any per diem, also known as “session subsistence” — for the first 15 days of the special session.

Gov. Chris Gregoire called the special session primarily so a small group of lawmakers could continue to figure out the state’s supplemental operating budget — something they could not agree on during the regular 60-day legislative session that ended March 8. Lawmakers are given up to $90 a day to cover certain living expenses incurred during the special session.

Those first 15 days of the special session were “pro forma,” meaning no voting or legislative action took place. Instead, Democratic and Republican legislators involved in the budget process and the governor met privately. All legislators are being called back to Olympia this week.

At $90 a day, Moeller received a per diem of $1,350 for those 15 days, plus a $102 reimbursement for 200 miles of driving.

Forty-six of the 98 House members took at least some of the per diem. Moeller was one of four House members who took the entire $90-a-day allotment.

In all, the per diem costs for House members during that first 15 days, excluding vehicle mileage, totalled $22,164. The state reimbursed approximately $3,800 for mileage.

When he’s not working as a lawmaker, Moeller works as a chemical dependency counselor with Kaiser Permanente, which gave him an unpaid leave of absence to serve in the Legislature. Several days before the House per diem report was released, Moeller said in a statement that the allowance has helped him pay for lodging.

“I’m not going to apologize for taking $90/day to help maintain an apartment in Olympia while I’ve been on unpaid leave from my employer since Thanksgiving — first for the special session in December while passing a $500 million budget cut before the winter holidays, and recently for the 2012 regular legislative session,” Moeller said in the statement, which was released March 23.

Moeller’s comments followed press coverage of per diem records for senators’ first week of the special session. Senators report on a weekly basis during special session while House members report every 15 days.

Moeller also said in his statement that lawmakers need to start cooperating on the budget.

“Yes, we could spend weeks pointing fingers of blame for the special sessions,” he said in his statement. “Enough! We clearly cannot pass a budget without cooperation.”

Democrats — Moeller included — have blamed the recent Republican takeover of the state Senate’s budget proposal for causing the special session, while Republicans have pointed a finger at Democrats for spending time on a bill allowing same-sex couples to marry.

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.

The current 30-day special session is scheduled to end Tuesday.

Senators’ allowance

When it comes to Southwest Washington senators, per diem reports for the second and third week of the special session are similar to the first week’s report, with Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, and Sen. Joseph Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, each taking the maximum $90-a-day allowance. Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, continued to accept no per diem. He has been spending time campaigning for state auditor.

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 budget committee, but he has not been involved in talks because those typically take place among the committee’s leadership.

Benton is not on the Senate’s budget committee. Benton has said he is staying in Olympia during the special session so he can be ready at a moment’s notice once legislation requires voting. He also said he has been attending some caucus briefings and meeting with lobbyists during the special session.

Benton also has said it’s typical for lawmakers to continue taking the living allowance because the expenses of being in session continue.

Thirty-five of the 49 senators accepted at least some per diem during the first three weeks of the special session; their per diem costs totaled more than $33,000. Eight senators, including Benton and Zarelli, accepted the maximum per diem during all three weeks, meaning they each collected $1,890 during that time.

The Senate per diem report does not include mileage information.

Senate and House members get an annual salary of $42,106 and are provided with the $90-a-day per diem when on state business.

Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523 or stevie.mathieu@columbian.com or www.facebook.com/reportermathieu or www.twitter.com/col_politics

Columbian Assistant Metro Editor