ST. PAUL, MINN. (WCCO) — The pandemic upended so much of daily routines, and the Minnesota legislature was no exception, with remote work defining much of regular and special sessions that lasted 17 months straight.

But the more some things changed, others stayed the same — like lawmakers’ ability to claim daily expense payments known as per diem. No receipts required.

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In 2020, there was a special session for at least one day every month starting in June, after the regular session ended in May, to renew the governor’s emergency COVID powers. All of those sessions totaled 26 days of work and lawmakers, in total, claimed per diem pay exceeding $170,000.

Several lawmakers took per diem during the 2020 regular session, but none in the special sessions last year. A few lawmakers didn’t take any of the extra pay at all.

Per diem payments over the course of the pandemic — between all of 2020 sessions and the 2021 regular session — cost Minnesota more than $3.2 million, according to House and Senate expense records from the chamber’s budget office. That number is poised to increase: neither chamber has paid out per diem for June’s special session, during which lawmakers had to go into overtime to wrap up the $52 billion budget. Those cost reports will be available in August, staff said.

Members of the Minnesota House are entitled to $66 per day and the Senate $86 per day. That’s on top lodging and travel reimbursements and their annual salaries, which just got a bump from $46,500 to $48,250 effective July 1, per the Legislative Salary Council.

(credit: CBS)

That council, approved by voters via constitutional amendment in 2016, consists of appointees from across the state who aren’t in the legislature but are tasked with signing off on lawmakers’ salaries so lawmakers themselves aren’t setting those parameters.

The group has urged the House and Senate to get rid of the extra daily expense payments, writing in a March report detailing their salary increases that “payments of flat dollar amounts do not reflect members’ actual expenses that are incurred.”

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They noted that the IRS treats the payments as income and the state factors per diem when determining retirement benefits. The discrepancy between the House and Senate — $66 versus $86 — supports the “concern” that the point of the daily boost has little to do with expenses.

“Members strongly believe that for most legislators, per diems are a nontransparent form of additional salary,” the report said. “Legislative Salary Council members have indicated they would support an increase in salary if per diem were eliminated.”

Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, during a meeting on the Senate’s budget and staff salaries Wednesday urged his colleagues to consider changing the payment structure in the future, calling the issue a “political hot potato” that nobody wants to touch.

“I don’t think it’s going to change in the next few years but if we do what we told the voters we intended with that amendment, we turn the compensation over to an independent council. I think that’s a fair thing to do,” Marty said. “I think that’s the level of transparency voters were promised.”

But so far calls to end the flat-rate daily pay-outs have gone nowhere.

Secretary of the Senate Cal Ludeman said during the hearing that Minnesota is “right in the middle range” when it comes to legislator compensation when compared to other state legislatures’ compensation for their members. To see how Minnesota compares to other states, click here.

Senate records show some lawmakers joined remotely from Alaska, California, Hawaii and Kansas during the June special session.

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One lawmaker last year joined a meeting from the golf course.

Caroline Cummings