Minnesota lawmakers' overall per diem costs and expense reimbursements fell in 2020 as more people worked from home during the pandemic. Still, payments to legislators added up over a record number of special sessions.
The Legislature held seven special sessions last year. The state's 201 lawmakers received $158,684 in per diem payments during those special sessions, year-end House and Senate data show.
In 2019, there was only a one-day special session, when legislators worked through the night to wrap up bills from the regular session. Lawmakers netted $6,479 in per diem payments from that day.
Lawmakers can file for daily expenses — $86 in the Senate, $66 in the House — to cover costs, in addition to their $46,500 annual salaries. But some choose not to. Twenty-five senators and 42 representatives did not receive a single per diem during last year's special sessions, although some might not have filed yet for the payment.
Senators who did file for the money got a total of $36,445 during special sessions, while the House, which has twice as many members, doled out $122,239. A House DFL spokesman noted the high per-diem cost could be because many legislators traveled to their offices across the street from the Capitol and worked there during special sessions instead of staying home.
Lawmakers approved a significant COVID-19 relief package in their final special session last year and passed a number of other bills over the summer and fall. But at some special sessions they accomplished little more than political theater, clashing repeatedly over Gov. Tim Walz's emergency powers.
Fifty House members received $1,518 in special session per diems, the most among their members. A few senators got a little more than that. Former Sen. Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, who just retired, got $2,064, the most of any legislator during the special sessions.
Cohen, who served for decades in the Legislature, was surprised to hear he was the highest. He was examining his calendar Friday to ensure the money reflected the days he worked and was sending the Senate a check to reimburse any mistakes. Cohen said for years he was among the lowest per-diem recipients, and, "Irony upon irony that I ended up being a little careless after years of being careful."
While special session per-diem costs jumped, overall legislator payments fell as many people worked remotely.
Along with per diems, lawmakers can be reimbursed for lodging, mileage, communications and travel costs. Senators' reimbursements and per diem payments for all of 2020, not just special sessions, amounted to nearly $1.4 million; House members got more than $1.8 million. Those overall costs dropped by roughly $211,000 in the Senate and $616,000 in the House from 2019.
Travel expenses fell dramatically, although a trio of Senate Democrats got far more than their colleagues in that area. A Senate DFL spokeswoman said that's because they were billed in 2020 for an out-of-state conference in December 2019.
Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044