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Special session: Hearings start Wednesday; per diem pay relatively low

OLYMPIA – With barely a week left in the special session, most legislators return to the Capitol Wednesday for the first public budget action since the special session started March 12.

They’ll get briefings on the latest version of an operating budget – to be unveiled in the morning – that will try to pass both chambers. The House Ways and Means Committee will hold an afternoon hearing on a half dozen reforms and changes to state law necessary to make that budget work.

The majority of legislators have spent most of the special session at home while their leaders and top budget writers tried to work out a compromise. That has kept some of the costs of this overtime session – the third since January 2011 – relatively low.

About half the House and two-thirds of the Senate have collected some payments for daily expenses, also known as sustenance pay, despite the low level of public activity in the Capitol. But most of the large payments went to those involved in the ongoing budget negotiations….

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OLYMPIA – With barely a week left in the special session, most legislators return to the Capitol today cqWEDS for the first public budget action since the special session started March 12.

They’ll get briefings on the latest version of an operating budget – to be unveiled this morning – that will try to pass both chambers. The House Ways and Means Committee will hold an afternoon hearing on a half dozen reforms and changes to state law necessary to make that budget work.

The majority of legislators have spent most of the special session at home while their leaders and top budget writers tried to work out a compromise. That has kept some of the costs of this overtime session – the third since January 2011 – relatively low.

About half the House and two-thirds of the Senate have collected some payments for daily expenses, also known as sustenance pay, despite the low level of public activity in the Capitol. But most of the large payments went to those involved in the ongoing budget negotiations.

By law, legislators are entitled to $90 per day for living expenses during a regular or special session. Records released Tuesday afternoon by the Secretary of the Senate show 16 of the 49 senators did not request a per diem for the first three weeks of the special session. In the House, which requires expenses to be filed on a different schedule, 52 of the 98 representatives did not request a per diem for the first two weeks.

In total, the Senate has paid about $32,000 in living expenses for the first three weeks of the special session and the House about $22,000 for the first two weeks. That’s over and above the yearly salary legislators make of $42,100.

But the cost of the special session expenses are not being added on to the state’s cash-strapped budget. “We will likely leverage efficiencies elsewhere in our budget to pay for these expenses,” Bernard Dean, deputy chief clerk of the House, said.

Among senators who filed for the most days were those directly involved in daily budget talks. Majority Leader Lisa Brown of Spokane, filed for the daily expense allotment for all 21 days, as did Ed Murray of Seattle and Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield, the top Democrat and Republican, respectively, on the Ways and Means Committee. Minority Leader Mike Hewitt of Walla Walla filed for 17 days, from the beginning of the special session until a medical emergency required him to go to Seattle for surgery. Republican Floor Leader Mark Schoesler, who fills in for Hewitt on some leadership meetings, filed for 15 days.

In the House, neither Speaker Frank Chopp of Seattle nor Minority Leader Richard DeBolt of Chehalis filed for daily expenses in that first week. The top budget writers, Democrat Ross Hunter of Medina filed for 11 days, and Republican Gary Alexander of Olympia for eight, although Alexander asked that his stipend be reduced to $84 per day. Rep. Timm Ormsby of Spokane, a member of the Ways and Means and vice chairman of the Capital Budget Committee in Olympia for much of the special session, filed for 12 days of payments.

Most other legislators who claimed a per diem did it for brief trips they made to Olympia for meetings. Rep. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said his $270 covered three days during the second week of the special session when there were caucus, member and staff meetings.

“It doesn’t reflect the video conferencing and conference calls and phone calls” during that period, he said.

Republican senators from Spokane-area districts filed for a few days of expenses. Republican House members didn’t file for any.


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Jim Camden is a veteran political reporter for The Spokesman-Review.


Jonathan Brunt is an enterprise reporter for The Spokesman-Review.


Kip Hill is a general assignments reporter for The Spokesman-Review.

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