The Seattle Times
By: Walker Orenstein
OLYMPIA — Lawmakers are racking up extra pay as they continue negotiating a budget in special session this year, sticking taxpayers with a growing bill that reached more than $87,500 halfway through the current 30-day overtime.
With no compromise in sight, a second OT and climbing costs are all but certain.
Records show lawmakers took roughly $75,500 in stipends 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 travel related to legislative work. That might be an incomplete figure, because senators have up to 60 days to submit travel expenses, Senate counsel Jeannie Gorrell said.
The first overtime period ends Tuesday and follows a 105-day regular session during which the majority-Democratic House and GOP-led Senate failed to reach a deal on a final budget.
Legislators can take a $120-a-day stipend, known as per diem, any time the Legislature is in session or when they have obligations such as a committee hearing during the interim.
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.
Dean said House lawmakers and administrators have pondered restricting the money during special sessions because most legislators are absent.
Under the current setup, 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 others in leadership positions, including Senate budget writer John Braun, R-Centralia, and House Speaker 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 last week.
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.
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, R-Auburn, took the full pay despite saying he was only at the Capitol an average of 2½days per week.
Fortunato said the $1,680 he received in two weeks mainly went toward a room he rents in an Olympia house.
The 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 Democrats’ chief budget negotiator, 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 lawmakers make $46,839 a year, although a citizen commission on Wednesday approved a 2 percent raise for legislators in each of the next two years.
Fortunato said he 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.
Lawmakers took nearly $500,000, including travel reimbursements, in 2015 when they went to triple overtime.
Fain said he’s thought about efforts to curb per diem spending during overtime sessions.
“Yeah it’s a concern,” he said about the growing price 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.