Lawmakers collect for '07 expenses under new rule

Rep. Al Juhnke does not shy away from his No. 1 ranking. The Willmar Democrat collected the most daily expense reimbursements of any Minnesota House member last year, even topping House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher. Juhnke, chairman of an a...

Rep. Al Juhnke does not shy away from his No. 1 ranking.

The Willmar Democrat collected the most daily expense reimbursements of any Minnesota House member last year, even topping House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher.

Juhnke, chairman of an agriculture and veterans affairs committee, said the $18,234 of per diem he took home in addition to a $31,140 legislative salary was the result of his busy committee schedule and other legislative responsibilities.

"I'm proud to be one of the hardest-working legislators in the state," he boasted.

Recent figures from the House and Senate show lawmakers sought a total of $2.36 million for daily expense reimbursements in 2007. That is on top of lawmakers' salary, mileage compensation and lodging reimbursement for rural legislators and those who travel for legislative duties.


Often a controversial topic, legislative compensation got another look early in the 2007 session when a House committee increased the daily per diem limit from $66 to $77. The Senate limit is $96 daily, also up from $66.

Per diem is meant to cover lawmakers' meals and other work-related expenses, and receipts are not required for reimbursement.

Lawmakers still could add to the 2007 totals. House members have up to 90 days from the date of work activity to seek per diem, though most of the 2007 requests have been submitted.

"Why would you want to wait to get reimbursed for your expenses?" asked Minnesota House controller Paul Schweizer.

Senators can submit per diem requests for up to 60 days after the date of activity. For that reason, legislative staff said a small percentage of the 2007 per diem payments are for lawmakers' work at the end of 2006.

Annual per diem payments for senators who served most of 2007 averaged $14,703. In the House, the average was $10,232.

Lawmakers with committee chairmanships topped the lists of per diem recipients in both legislative chambers, which mirrored per diem trends from recent years when Republicans controlled the House. Democrats took over control of the Legislature last year.

Tom Bakk, chairman of the Senate Taxes Committee, ranked sixth for per diem payments among the 67 senators. He said that was the result of many days spent trying to negotiate a new tax bill with Gov. Tim Pawlenty following the governor's veto of a tax package after the regular legislative session concluded.


"There's a reason I'm high in per diem this year," Bakk (DFL-Cook) told reporters recently. "Believe me. I'd rather not spend half the summer here."

Some Republicans and Democrats continue to take less than the maximum allowed per diem payments.

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen (R-Alexandria) took $76 a day for per diem last year and said he will seek $86 this year. A first-term legislator, Ingebrigtsen said he wants lawmakers to give their compensation a closer look.

"At least reduce it so that you don't have to go home and tell folks you need $96 to eat," Ingebrigtsen said.

The Legislature should consider increasing its annual salary limits to a certain percentage of the governor's salary and then slashing per diem payments or getting rid of the daily expense allowance all together, he said.

Some say per diem provides equity among lawmakers.

"The per diem has a way of adding some fairness for those who have more assignments," said Rep. Morrie Lanning (R-Moorhead) said. Lanning serves on 14 committees and commissions and said he has been in St. Paul or elsewhere in Minnesota nearly every week since the 2007 regular session ended in May.

"So much for a part-time interim," he said.


Lanning, who collected $11,952 in per diem last year and takes less than what is allowed, noted there hasn't been an increase to lawmakers' salary for a decade.

Many lawmakers near the top of the per diem lists serve on the House and Senate public works committees, which decide what construction projects the state should support with borrowed funds. Those committees spent several weeks traveling the state last year to learn about proposed construction projects in preparation for this year's bonding bill.

As a new bonding committee member, Juhnke said he attended all of those trips to public colleges, state buildings, local facilities and parks.

"We've been to every corner of the state," he said. "Until you see, feel and touch these things, it's difficult to put it all together."

Juhnke said a large share of his per diem after the regular session was the result of his perfect attendance on at least six capital investment committee tours. It is important to see proposed projects in person before deciding which deserve funding, he said.

In 2007, Juhnke said, he also attended commission and board hearings during the legislative interim, spoke at agricultural conferences and attended meetings of the Midwestern Legislative Conference, where he leads an agriculture panel.

The four legislative caucus leaders also accepted above-average per diem payments.

Kelliher, a Minneapolis DFLer and the most powerful House member, collected $17,769 in per diem. Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller (DFL-Minneapolis) sought $16,374, according to the most recent expense report.


Republican House Minority Leader Marty Seifert of Marshall, who has criticized the legislative pay system, collected $12,507 in per diem. Senate Minority Leader Dave Senjem (R-Rochester) took home $14,208 in per diem.

The media likes to report about lawmakers' compensation, Juhnke said, but it is not a top concern of most Minnesotans.

"I can walk with you today and we go right down the street in any town in Minnesota and knock on the door and say give me your top five legislative issues I should address this year," Juhnke said, "and per diem will never be mentioned - never."

(Wente works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Park Rapids Enterprise.)

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