Here's what you've paid — so far — for the special session in Olympia

by: Walker Orenstein, The News Tribune Updated:

© 2017 Cox Media Group.

Lawmakers are racking up extra pay as they continue negotiating a budget in special session this year, sticking taxpayers with a growing bill that was more than $87,500 halfway through the current 30-day overtime.

With no compromise in sight, a second overtime is all but certain. That means the costs will keep climbing.

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Records show lawmakers took roughly $75,500 in per diem between April 24 and May 7. The money typically pays for session expenses such as rent and dry cleaning.

Legislators also pocketed around $11,600 in reimbursement for the cost of travel related to legislative work. That might be an incomplete figure since senators have up to 60 days to submit travel expenses, Senate counsel Jeannie Gorrell said.

The first overtime period ends on Tuesday and follows a 105-day regular session where the majority-Democrat House and the GOP-led Senate failed to reach a deal on a final budget.

Lawmakers can take their $120-a-day stipend, also known as per diem, any time the Legislature is in session or when they have legislative obligations such as a committee hearing during the interim.

But the money draws more scrutiny during a special session.

House Chief Clerk Bernard Dean said that’s in part because only key budget writers are actually at the Capitol for most of the special session, making it harder for other lawmakers to justify taking the allowance even if they do some legislative work away from Olympia.

Leadership at the Capitol typically sends rank-and-file lawmakers home while negotiators iron out a deal.

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Dean said House lawmakers and administrators have even pondered restricting the money during special session because most legislators are absent.

Under the current set up, most lawmakers take only part of the allowance or reject the money altogether. Some opt to take the full check, citing housing costs among other reasons.

State Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, said he turns down the money to dispel any notion that politicians welcome the special session so they can make a few extra bucks.

Fain, the GOP floor leader, is one of the few legislators in Olympia frequently during overtime sessions. Several other lawmakers in leadership positions, including senate budget writer John Braun, R-Centralia, and Speaker of the House Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, also took no per diem early in the first special session.

“I’m not going to charge the taxpayers extra because we weren’t able to get our work done in time,” Fain said Wednesday.

In total, 23 lawmakers — 13 Democrats and 10 Republicans — didn’t claim per diem in the first two weeks of the special session, according to expense records reviewed by The News Tribune and The Olympian.

State Rep. Laurie Jinkins, a Tacoma Democrat, took two days of per diem in the special session’s first two weeks, the records show.

Jinkins said she doesn’t reject the extra money categorically, but only claims it when she takes time off from her job at the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department and heads to Olympia to work “either on pieces of legislation or the budget.”

Twelve lawmakers — six Republicans and six Democrats — claimed per diem every day of the first two weeks in the special session, including weekends.

State Sen. Phil Fortunato, a Republican from Auburn, was one who took the full pay despite saying he was only at the Capitol an average of two and a half days per week.

Fortunato said the $1,680 he received in two weeks mainly went toward a room he rents in an Olympia house.

His Olympia landlord “doesn’t ask me if I’m there or not, he just wants his money,” he said.

State Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, also said he needs the per diem to pay rent and other bills.

As the Democrat’s chief budget negotiator in the Legislature, Ormsby rents a house with his wife in Olympia because he must be at the Capitol daily and can’t commute from Spokane.

He also has to fork over cash for a mortgage in Spokane, he said.

“As much as I love this job, and I truly do, I can’t go bankrupt doing it,” Ormsby said.

Most state lawmakers currently make $46,839 a year, although a citizen commission that decides the salaries of elected officials on Wednesday approved a 2 percent raise for legislators in each of the next two years.

Fortunato said he also takes per diem because senate leadership could ask him to travel to Olympia at any time to vote on a potential budget deal or another important bill, complicating the scheduling at his office job.

“You’re on call 24 hours a day,” Fortunato said.

Whether lawmakers should be allowed to claim their per diem in special session as freely as they do in regular session has been a subject of mild debate at the Capitol. Dean said House leaders have talked before about restricting the allowance during special sessions.

Lawmakers took nearly $500,000 including travel reimbursements in 2015 when they went to triple overtime.

Fain, too, said he’s thought about efforts to curb per diem spending during overtime sessions.

“Yeah it’s a concern,” he said when asked about the growing price tag of this year’s special session.

But he said he also believes lawmakers who say they need the extra money, especially when continuing to pay multiple rents.

“I don’t ever want to create a situation where people can’t participate in public service because there’s a financial barrier to it,” Fain said.

Plus, the roughly $87,500 isn’t his main incentive to try and avoid special sessions, he said.

Schools and state agencies can have difficulty planning their budgets for the next two years when the Legislature can’t agree on how much money to give them, Fain said.

The two-year budget under negotiation will probably spend upwards of $40 billion on the functions of government.

Ormsby said the pier diem and reimbursement costs are “not insignificant,” but they’re not his chief concern, either.

“In relation to the magnitude and the gravity of the work that needs to be done it’s a teeny tiny percentage of things,” he said.

Story by: The News Tribune