OLYMPIA – State senators will be able to collect an extra $30 a day for expenses during future legislative sessions under a rule approved Tuesday.
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 $90, where it has been since 2005.
Over objections from some senators who questioned the timing of the raise or said expense policies require a more comprehensive look, the committee agreed to match the House of Representatives, which raised the per diem for its members to $120 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. He cast the deciding vote to raise the expense allotment for senators, as well as a $10 jump, 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 will add $95,000 to the cost of a 60-day session like the one that just ended and $155,000 to a 105-day session like the one scheduled for next year, according to committee estimates. It will continue to add up in special sessions, which the Legislature has needed in the four previous years, although not all legislators file for the per diem during those sessions.
The $30 increase is the largest increase in legislators’ per diem since they started meeting in yearly sessions in 1979. At that point, the per diem was $40; it 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.