Washington lawmakers concluded a record 193-day legislative session last month where they hammered out deals on education funding while also failing to strike accords on a capital budget and a fix to a court decision that’s stalled rural development in parts of the state.
When lawmakers are in session, they are allowed $120 per day to help offset food and lodging expenses. In addition, they earn $46,839 annual legislative salaries.
Local lawmakers expressed unease at taking extra taxpayer money when the Legislature goes into overtime.
But they’ve adopted different approaches to taking or leaving per diem payments during the marathon special sessions.
“I don’t think the people I represent should be expected to pay for our failure to get our work done on time,” said state Sen. Annette Cleveland, D- Vancouver.
Per Diem Payments
to Clark County legislators:
during the regular session, and an additional
during the special sessions.
Cleveland is the only local lawmaker to turn down per diem during special sessions. Others, citing time away from work and a need to make money, do.
During the regular session, Clark County’s legislative delegation took home $112,532 in per diem payments (with reductions for parking fees and other expenses) during the regular session.
During the special sessions, which ran from April to July, they collected an additional $27,910 in per diem payments.
According to records, Cleveland took per diem payments only for the regular session, which amounted to $12,600. Cleveland also took $1,658.50 in mileage reimbursements for legislative business, including during the special sessions. According to Cleveland, she didn’t take mileage reimbursements for every trip but felt justified in taking some because of the wear-and-tear on her car.
Cleveland said she would be open to reconsidering how legislators are paid per diem if they go into overtime. However, she said she worries that limiting per diem payments could mean that only individuals who are wealthy or live in the Puget Sound area could serve in the Legislature.
Most local legislators take per diem only if they’ve traveled to Olympia for a vote or other official business. And most agree, while they’re uneasy.
“During special sessions, I only took per diem on days I was actually in Olympia on official business,” Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, wrote in an email. Her approach toward per diems matched that of most Clark County legislators. She accepted a total of $13,920 in per diem payments, including $1,320 during the special session.
Sessions conflict with holding a job
Under the state Constitution, lawmakers are allowed to be reimbursed for one round trip to their district per session. They can also be reimbursed for some travel for legislative business. Wilson took only a $117 reimbursement for her round trip during the regular session, although she explained that she took 23 round trips during the sessions.
Ann Rivers, a La Center Republican, took the most per diem of Clark County’s state Senate delegation at $15,720, in addition to $616 in travel reimbursements. Rivers was involved with one of the Legislature’s heaviest lifts, co-chairing a task force charged with coming up with a way to meet the school funding requirements of the landmark McCleary court decision.
In a text message, she wrote that she was in Olympia for most of the special sessions. Rivers has previously said it’s difficult to hold down a job while being away to conduct legislative business.
“I think it’s okay to take per diem if you are engaged in negotiating to bring session to a close,” she wrote in a text message, adding that she didn’t take travel reimbursement during the special session.
During the regular session, all six members of Clark County’s House delegation received about $12,600 in per diem payments. On average they took $113 for mileage reimbursements during the regular session.
Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, took the most per diem of Clark County’s House delegation at $6,360 and $588 for travel expenses during the special sessions. Also a member of the education funding task force, Harris said he was in Olympia four days a week while in special session. Most other legislators weren’t expected to be in Olympia during special sessions unless a vote was scheduled.
“But I would fault no legislator for taking per diem even if they weren’t up there,” he said. Harris said that legislators have to put their lives on hold during special sessions, knowing that they may suddenly be called back to vote on a bill. He said he once lost a job because he was preoccupied with legislative business, and that legislators need to be compensated.
Other local representatives said they didn’t take per diem payments if they weren’t doing legislative work.
Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, took $4,626 in per diem payments during the special sessions, in addition to $622 for travel costs. She said special sessions, which were held the last two years, are making it difficult for average people who need to hold down jobs to serve in the Legislature.
“If you want a citizen’s Legislature, then people from all tax brackets need to participate,” she said.
Rep. Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver, (who was first elected in 2016) said she took per diem during the special session only when she was conducting legislative business. Records show the freshman legislator took the smallest per diem amount during the special session at $1,289 with $424.79 in travel costs.
Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, also said she took per diem only while performing legislative business during the special session. She took $1,986 in per diem, along with $680 in travel reimbursements.
Rep. Brandon Vick, R-Vancouver, took $6,120 in per diem during the special session, in addition to $56 in travel reimbursements. Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, took $2,249 in per diem during the special session, in addition to $505 in travel reimbursements.
Neither returned a request for comment.