There are more costs associated with being an elected official than Republican Rep. Deb Kiel realized. The first-term legislator from Crookston said she didn’t anticipate the money she would have to spend on things like travel and communications. She has been able to save some money by living with her son, who is a student at the McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul, but said she still needs to tap the per diem payments that she and every other legislator are allotted to help cover the costs.
Per diem payments are a tricky subject for Republican legislators, especially the 54 freshmen who came to the Capitol this year on an anti-government spending wave. The issue of per diems was brought up in many GOP campaigns last fall – especially in the Senate – as Republican challengers went after incumbent DFLers for voting to increase daily per diem payments and thereby inflate their government paychecks.
But within the first three months of the legislative session, all but one of the GOP freshman legislators in both the House and Senate took per diem payments in addition to their $31,000 per year salaries. (All seven freshman DFL legislators have claimed per diem reimbursements as well.) Some GOP legislators who campaigned heavily on cutting government spending, including Rep. Mary Franson and Senators Gretchen Hoffman and Dave Thompson, have taken the maximum per diem payments allowed through the period covered by currently available records.
“It’s a tough decision, one I think each legislator has to make for themselves,” Kiel said.
The wide use of per diems by their caucuses notwithstanding, Republican legislative leaders took steps this year to reduce the size of the payments. Freshman GOP Rep. King Banaian notes that Republicans in the Rules Committee voted to make across-the-board cuts to House per diem payments, knocking them down from $77 to about $66 per day. They also cut lodging reimbursements by 25 percent, he noted. In the Senate, Majority Leader Amy Koch reduced per diem payments from $96 to $86 per day for all senators, and cut out-of-state travel reimbursements.
But only one freshman Republican – Sen. Roger Chamberlain of Lino Lakes -has opted to forego the cash altogether.
As one DFL lobbyist notes, many of the freshmen who railed at DFLers over the issue on the campaign trail are now facing the reality of the costs that come with being a legislator. “It’s not exactly the best-paying job in the world,” the lobbyist said. “It’s a great soundbite when you’re campaigning, but now that they’re here, not many are going to give up that extra paycheck from the government.”