Minnesota lawmakers billed the state for more than $335,200 in housing and other expense reimbursements from July 1 to Sept. 1 — a two-month period when the Legislature was not in session for a single day — according to court documents filed in the legal battle between Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican legislative leaders.
Spending items range from payroll and office expenses to State Fair Tickets ($3,750) and flowers ($482). The information disclosed does not link the expense reimbursements to the 201 individual members of the Legislature, or indicate if the sometimes-hefty expenses were racked up by Republicans or DFLers.
In court filings, legislative leaders say those expenses and others — which typically aren’t shared in detail with the public — are necessary to keep the Legislature running.
Lawmakers use that spending as evidence that the House and Senate will run out of money by this winter, should the Minnesota Supreme Court refrain from ultimately striking down Dayton’s veto of legislative funding.
But the DFL governor sees it as proof of something else: that the Legislature’s budget includes “substantial discretionary amounts” and that it could stretch its funds further than its leaders let on.
Based on the line-by-line expense tally, the governor’s attorney, Sam Hanson, wrote that his client believes “that the monthly expenses estimated by the Senate and House are overstated.”
A spokeswoman for the Senate’s Republican majority questioned the accuracy of the expense records, which were compiled by the Dayton administration.
Spokeswoman Katie Fulkerson said that, among other errors, it did not include a month’s worth of payroll for senators.
The latest turn in the monthslong dispute provides a rare glimpse into the finances of the Legislature, which is not subject to the same open records laws as other public entities in Minnesota, such as cities and county governments.
The Legislature’s budget is written and approved using only broad budgetary figures, making it difficult to tell exactly how the two chambers spend their combined $130 million, two-year budget.
But the document released Tuesday, as Dayton and legislative leaders head into a court-ordered mediation process, brings some of that spending into focus.
Among the items detailed are monthly rent payments that range from $1,600 at the Penfield apartments, a downtown St. Paul complex that bills itself as a “luxury mixed-use apartment community,” to those at a handful of other buildings that rent for about $900 per month.
State lawmakers who live at least 50 miles away are entitled to an $1,800 per month rental allowance year round, whether or not the Legislature is in session.
In total, House members spent just over $135,000 on housing and furniture rental in July and August, when official legislative activity was largely confined to a handful of committee hearings.
The Senate expense report does not separate housing from other costs.
Other expenses, which can include a per diem allowance, mileage reimbursement and a “communications allowance,” are lumped together in a single category — but not listed alongside lawmakers’ names. Members of the House are entitled to a $66 per diem, while Senate members get $86 per day.
Some legislators’ expenses were grouped into larger payments, making it difficult to determine how much an individual received.
Fulkerson said apartment reimbursements for senators from greater Minnesota “are often paid all at once.”
Media representatives for both the House and Senate declined to comment on specific expenses, referring instead to a memo filed Monday by the Legislature’s attorney, Douglas Kelley.
That document lays out the Legislature’s financial situation and argues that the Senate will run out of money on Dec. 1, and the House on Feb. 1, should the Minnesota Supreme Court allow Dayton’s veto to stand.
In the Tuesday court filing, the governor’s legal team does not specify which expenses it believes to be discretionary. But in an earlier filing, Hanson singled out spending on items like water coolers and out-of-state travel as evidence that the Legislature regularly spends more than necessary to perform its constitutional duties.
The two sides are expected to begin mediation sessions this week, though the details of that stage of the process are being kept under tight wraps. They are expected to produce a progress report for the Minnesota Supreme Court by the end of the month, detailing their work to end a political and legal battle that began in May, as the Legislature prepared to adjourn for the year.
After the governor vetoed legislative funding amid a dispute over some aspects of the budget and other policies, the Legislature sued, arguing Dayton had violated the constitutional separation of powers between branches of government.
A lower-court judge agreed with the Legislature and found Dayton’s veto unconstitutional.
The governor appealed to the state’s high court, which said that the veto was allowed under the Constitution — but declined to fully settle the matter until the governor and lawmakers had worked harder to resolve it themselves.
The costs of the process will be covered by taxpayers. Through the end of August, Dayton’s legal fees totaled $245,000.
The Legislature will be billed once the matter is settled; its lead attorney charges $325 per hour. Neither side has released details about the expected cost of the mediation process.