OLYMPIA – With barely a week left in the special session, most legislators return to the Capitol today 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 $42,100 salary legislators make.
But the cost of the special session expenses is 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,” said Bernard Dean, deputy chief clerk of the House.
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 filed for 15 days.
In the House, neither Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, nor Minority Leader Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis, filed for daily expenses in that first week. The top budget writers, Ross Hunter, D-Medina, and Gary Alexander, R-Olympia, filed for eight and 11 days, respectively, although Alexander asked that his stipend be reduced to $84 per day.
Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, a member of the Ways and Means Committee and vice chairman of the Capital Budget Committee in Olympia for much of the special session, filed for 12 days of payments. Ormsby said he had to pay another full month’s rent on his Olympia accommodations because of the special session and spent the 12 days in the Capitol learning about pension, education and health issues that are expected to be key to the budget resolution.
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.