The dustup over legislators' per diem - after the Associated Press reported that two Canyon County senators billed taxpayers $6,400 apiece for a second Boise residence during the session while one slept on his law office couch and the other stayed with his parents - could prompt reforms of the per diem system, AP reporter John Miller reports today. Click below for his full article.
Idaho per diem dustup could prompt reforms
By JOHN MILLER, Associated Press
BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Some Idaho officials said Tuesday that reforms, additional oversight and education may be in order after a pair of legislators billed taxpayers an extra $6,400 apiece for a second residence this year — while one sleeps on his law office couch and the other says he stays at his parents' home.
Idaho legislators received nearly $1 million in per diem payments in 2011, money with no public scrutiny over how it's spent. What's more, lawmakers concede they don't exactly know the rules governing how much per diem they should get.
William "Bud" Yost, a Nampa attorney who sits on the biennial citizen's panel that advises Idaho's Legislature on compensation, said the current system is intended to make sure out-of-town lawmakers from distant cities don't face financial hardship due to housing expenses.
But Sen. John McGee, of Caldwell, whose home is 26 miles away from the Capitol, claims a second-residence per diem while staying with his parents.
And Sen. Curt McKenzie, of Nampa, who lives 20 miles away, takes the extra cash but sleeps on his law office couch. McKenzie also improperly received mileage reimbursements, The Associated Press found; he said Monday he'll return $2,402 to the state.
The two Republicans' living arrangements — as well as confusion over just who is entitled to get $122 a day — are signs that the compensation commission should address the issue when it meets again in September 2012, Yost said.
"It was not a perk," he said. "It's always been there to offset a legitimate expense. It would be reasonable for the committee to review it."
Idaho's part-time legislators without a second residence are entitled to payments of $49 per day, on top of a $16,116 salary and a $1,875 expense account. These lawmakers can also get mileage reimbursements for travel between their homes and the Capitol.
Those lawmakers who claim a second residence in Ada County can get $122 per diem, an additional payment that must be approved by House and Senate leaders. They don't get mileage.
Combined, these payments amounted to some $941,000 for all 105 lawmakers for the 88-day 2011 legislative session.
The per diem is an "unvouchered expense allowance," meaning lawmakers don't have to account for how they spend the money.
A survey shows they spend it in a variety of ways.
Republican Sen. Denton Darrington, of Declo, said he pays rent to his daughter, Boise lobbyist Lyn Darrington, to live at her home. He declined to say how much she charges him.
"It's not too dissimilar to what I used to pay many years ago at a hotel which is no longer there," Darrington said.
Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, said he rented a home from a friend in Boise for $400 a month last session, to cut down on his Interstate 84 commute.
"It made it a lot easier," Crane told the AP, adding that he wouldn't take the additional per diem if he weren't incurring an additional expense.
Sen. Diane Bilyeu, D-Pocatello, bought a small apartment in Boise; Democratic Rep. Elaine Smith of Pocatello rents a place.
Rep. Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls, said she could live with family in Boise but prefers to rent an apartment.
"If I were to choose to live with a family member, I would seriously have to consider the merits of applying for that money," she said. "I probably wouldn't take it."
Sen. Tim Corder, a Mountain Home Republican who pays $600 monthly to share Democratic House Minority Leader John Rusche's Boise townhome during the session, said he was under the mistaken impression that only lawmakers whose primary residence is at least 50 miles from the Capitol were entitled to the $122 per diem.
In fact, virtually any lawmaker who claims a second residence can get the higher figure, provided he or she gets approval from House Speaker Lawerence Denney or Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill.
"It's ambiguous, and it's interpreted in different ways," Corder conceded.
Another lawmaker, Democratic Sen. Dan Schmidt, stayed rent-free with friends during the 2011 session but said he used his $122 per diem to help them pay for a remodeling project.
"They specifically said they would not accept rent," Schmidt said.
Like Corder, he also said he previously believed that only lawmakers from districts far from Boise qualified for the extra money.
To prevent possible abuse, Schmidt said legislative leaders should scrutinize second-residence claims.
"I thought there was a black-and-white line," Schmidt said. "Oversight is the key."
Hill, the Senate leader, said lawmakers like McGee and McKenzie followed the law when they claimed a second residence, entitling them to more money regardless of where they were actually sleeping.
But Hill added elected officials must judge for themselves what is the right thing to do because they are being held to a higher standard by a watchful public.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.