OLYMPIA — State senators will be able to collect an extra $30 a day for expenses during legislative sessions under a rule approved Tuesday by a committee of their members.
The Senate Facilities and Operations Committee voted 4-3 to raise the allowance for daily expenses by 33 percent, upping the per diem to $120 from the $90 it has been since 2005.
Over objections from some senators who said the question of expenses requires a more comprehensive look, the committee agreed to match the House of Representatives, which raised per diem for its members before the 2014 session started.
“I think it's inappropriate to raise the per diem for members and staff with less than 24 hours notice,” said Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville. “This is the wrong message at the wrong time, and possibly not even the right measure.”
The main expense for legislators living in Eastern Washington or other districts far from Olympia isn't food and rent, he said. It's the cost for trips to and from home. Raising the per diem “is going to reward the people who live closest to the capital,” he said.
Committee Chairman Don Benton, R-Vancouver, said the committee had discussed it enough, and cast the deciding vote to raise the expense allotment for senators, as well as a jump from $30 to $40 in the per diem for legislative assistants.
Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, said legislators haven't received a pay increase since 2008. “We don't need to get rich being in public office, but we sure as hell don't need to go broke.”
Sen. Karen Fraser, D-Olympia, made the motion to raise the per diem, even though she doesn't collect it during the session. It would be reasonable to consider other expenses in the coming months, she said, and those who object to the increase have an alternative: “Nobody has to take the full amount of per diem. You can take less.”
Raising the per diem in the House added about $176,000 in expenses for a 60-day session like the most recent one, and would add about $308,000 for the longer 105-day session. Estimates for the committee say the increase for the Senate would add $95,000 in a short session and $155,000 in a long session.
The $30 increase was the largest per diem raise since the Legislature started yearly sessions in 1979. The rate started at $40 in 1979, and was raised gradually, every few years, for most of that period through 2005. Ten years is the longest it has ever remained at the same rate.