MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — The Minnesota Legislature paid out more than a million dollars in daily expense payments to lawmakers for the shortened legislative session this spring, even though most of them worked most of the time at home — not the State Capitol — because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But unlike most workers who worked from home during the last few months, Minnesota lawmakers got thousands of dollars for daily expenses during Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order, with no receipts required.
Even in normal times, all Minnesota House members are entitled to $66 in per diem payments every day they work — that’s on top of their $46,500 salaries, travel expenses, mileage and housing allowances — and all Minnesota Senators get $86. This holds for seven days a week during session, even if they were not physically at the State Capitol.
In an unusual twist this year, Republican State Senator Scott Jensen remotely attended a health care policy hearing April 30 while golfing, and he received the $86 per diem, according to Senate finance records.
Sen. Jensen tells Reality Check his golf-playing during the remote Senate hearing on zoom needs more context.
Here’s how he explains it:
“I had two meetings overlap at 3:45 p.m. on April 30. My day routinely starts at 6 a.m. reviewing five to 10 news sources, so I had been working nine-and-a-half hours that day when I was scheduled to play golf with my campaign treasurer at 3:45 p.m. I thought the zoom committee meeting would be over by 3:30 p.m. bcause we had only one bill to address and it had already been previously reviewed. The meeting went longer than expected and so I had an overlap of about 20 minutes.”
For many lawmakers, per diem is a valuable back-door salary increase. The more per diem a legislator receives, the bigger the pension. Unlike most public data, per diem payments to Minnesota legislators are not accessible online. Taxpayers, which subsidize per diem payments, must personally request the information.
During this year’s three-month legislative session, taxpayers shelled out $1,266,071 in per diem. That’s an average of $6,362 per lawmaker, or $449 extra per week on the paycheck — for a session in which some of the biggest items were left undone. No vote on police reform after the George Floyd killing. Nor a massive jobs package. Nor the final federal pandemic relief.
Most lawmakers take the maximum per diem payments allowed, despite getting a 45% raise in 2017 to $45,000 annually.
The Legislative Salary Council which awarded the raise said the pay hike was significant enough to eliminate per diem payments altogether. It has advocated for eliminating per diem every year, including in the following 2019 report:
“Legislative Salary Council members strongly believe that for most legislators, per diems are a non-transparent form of additional salary. Many Council members have indicated they would support an increase in salary if per diem were eliminated. As a result, the Council continues to encourage the Minnesota Senate and the House of Representatives to consider eliminating per diems and replacing them with reimbursement for actual expenses. The Council is sympathetic to the challenges of the paperwork involved, but most Council members, with experience in both the public and private sectors, recognize this as a standard business practice.”
Only two out of 201 refused per diem. Rep. Tina Liebling (DFL-Rochester) is one of them. She said she is reimbursed for travel and living expenses in St. Paul, and doesn’t have other expenses she feels would justify the per diem.
“Legislative salaries are still too low, but my family is financially able to manage without the extra payments,” she said. “The Legislative Salary Council has said that its members would support an increase in salary if per diem were eliminated, and this is what I would like to see. ”
Rep. Cal Bahr (R-East Bethel) told WCCO he’s no different from any other Minnesotan who goes home after work every day.
“As someone who comes from the transportation industry, per diem is intended to cover increased costs of meals/lodging while not at home. I go home every night. I do not have any increased costs. I am no different than any other Minnesotan that goes home after work each day. Why should I be able to, at my own discretion, be able to increase my compensation? I choose not to,” Bahr said.
That’s Reality Check.
Here is what you need to know. Unlike almost every other state document, you cannot go online and find how much your local lawmaker got in per diem and expenses. That’s why we’re posting it here, in full:
Here are some of the other sources WCCO used for this Reality Check: