Most Minnesota state legislators receive thousands of dollars each year in per diem payments in addition to their salaries and expense reimbursements — a practice one legislator is pushing to end.
The pay subsidies are a “loophole” to bolster lawmakers’ salaries, said Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, who wants to end per diem payments, but only during the months the Legislature is in session.
Legislators received more than $1.3 million in per diem payments in 2018 — the majority of which was paid during the session. Garofalo received $10,098 last year in per diem pay, second only to former House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, among representatives.
Those payments violate the spirit of a constitutional amendment that voters approved in 2016, Garofalo said at a news conference Wednesday.
Minnesotans voted in 2016 to give an outside Legislative Salary Council decisionmaking authority over legislators’ pay. The council decided in 2017 to raise legislators’ annual salaries to $45,000. Before that, their income had been stagnant for nearly two decades at $31,140.
The council doesn’t control the other pay lawmakers receive beyond base salary, such as expense reimbursements, per diems and insurance and retirement benefits.
State representatives can request daily per diem payments of $66 and senators can get $86 without showing any receipts. The subsidies are meant to cover daily living expenses, such as meals.
House members received $5,812 in per diem money in 2018, on average, and senators got $8,274.
Legislators can get the per diem payment outside of the session when, for example, they are doing work with their committee or party’s leadership that would bring them to the Capitol, Garofalo said.
In addition to the per diems, they can get reimbursed for official travel, communication expenses like cellphones and internet, as well as lodging if they live more than 50 miles from the State Capitol, according to a 2017 report from the Legislative Salary Council.
The council recommended eliminating per diem payments and reimbursing people only for their actual living expenses. The report did note that the vast majority of Legislatures across the country do offer per diem payments.
“Council members viewed per diem payments primarily as nontransparent supplemental income to the salary received by Minnesota legislators,” the report stated.
Garofalo said that since voters opted to take away legislators’ ability to vote on their own salaries in 2016 and give it to an independent council, there could be problems with continuing the practice of per diems.
“There is a reasonable legal case to be made that the current practice of allocating per diem during session is actually unconstitutional,” he said.
He is introducing the resolution in the House Rules and Legislative Administration Committee.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, was noncommittal when asked about it and noted that the proposal is not coming from any of the House Republican caucuses, just from Garofalo.
“It remains to be seen if there is support for it,” Hortman said in a statement.
But Garofalo said he has talked to House members from both parties and is optimistic about bipartisan support. He said he has not spoken to any senators about his proposal.
“The optics of it look pretty bad that the voters told us, ‘Don’t be in charge of raising your own pay. Don’t be in charge of determining your own compensation.’ And yet that’s still the practice two years later,” he said.
He said he has not brought up the proposal sooner because legislators were seeing how the 2017 council recommendations played out and how both chambers responded.
“This is first time we’ve had a full legislative session to enact it, to take a look at this since the salary commission’s recommendations came out,” he said.