Shut down the Idaho Legislature's per-diem gravy train

Popularized by Gov. Butch Otter — and parroted by legislators — the phrase “the proper role of government” has become a Statehouse mantra.

Reasonable people can debate about where to draw the boundaries. That give and take is the essence of public policy. But I think reasonable people can agree that government has no role in subsidizing Sen. Curt McKenzie’s office lease, or helping Sen. Dan Schmidt’s friends make over their home.

Yet, these are your tax dollars at what passes for work — under a legislative per diem system that is officially out of control.

The more John Miller of the Associated Press writes about this mess, the worse things look for citizen legislators.
While so many worthwhile programs under the “proper role of government” umbrella absorbed a budget cut, lawmakers happily accepted nearly $1 million in per diem expenses in 2011.

Among Miller’s most damning findings:

• McKenzie, R-Nampa, collected the $122-a-day for expenses during the session and crashed nights at his Boise law office. As he weakly explains it, the per diem helped him pay the lease on a larger office with room for a couch.

• Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell, collected his $122 a day, and spent some nights at his parents’ Boise home. No word of whether his folks received any rent from their prodigal son.

• Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, actually did pay $400 a month in rent on a Boise home. Nice deal if you can get it, especially since the arrangement burns through barely three days’ worth of Crane’s monthly allowance.

• Schmidt, D-Moscow, found friends who refused to accept rent. Instead, Schmidt applied his $122 per diem to help his friends pay for a home remodeling project.

The problem — which transcends party and ideology — couldn’t be more clear. Lawmakers have decided to treat the per diem as free money, an extension of their $16,116-a-year part-time paycheck. The payments no longer have any tangible connection to actual expenses incurred. It’s not even clear who should get what: the $49 a day that covers Treasure Valley lawmakers who commute to the Statehouse, or the $122 a day that is designed to cover out-of-towners who need housing in Boise.

The solution, as I now see it, also seems clear.

Drop the per diem system.

Make lawmakers file expense reports — and reimburse them for legitimate, work-related costs.

The Legislature isn’t quite where Boise City Hall was in 2002, when then-Mayor Brent Coles spent $1,871 of taxpayer money to go to dinner and a Broadway show with three other city employees. The resulting investigation forced Coles’ resignation and landed the once-popular mayor in jail.

The scandal also exposed deeper flaws at a City Hall that no longer had its municipal mind on the taxpayers’ money. The resulting reforms included a clampdown on the number, and the use, of city-issued “purchasing cards,” or “p-cards,” which had allowed employees to buy meals and other items with little or no supervision.

Problem exposed. Problem addressed.

That leads us back to the Statehouse. The per diem system is fraught with problems. Now that these problems have been exposed, it’s time to do something about it.

I can hear the weeping and wailing already. Filling out expense reports is just so onerous. Lawmakers are too busy and too important to fritter away their time on paperwork.

Too bad. I could elaborate, but my mom doesn’t like it when I curse.

I recall, in 2002, when Coles tried to tell our editorial board that the city’s accounting chores were mere “minutiae.” Look how that worked out.

I can also hear lawmakers — so fiscally conservative when it suits their purpose — arguing that a reimbursement system would simply create a costly bureaucracy.

Again, too bad.

Yes, the state might have to hire staff to review and approve expenses. But taxpayers are forking over nearly $1 million a year, ostensibly for expenses, but with no oversight. Given that, I’ll bet the bean counters would earn their keep.

Here’s a little side benefit. Lawmakers would get a little flavor of life in the real world, where recession-toughened private sector workplaces often cut employee perks first, not last.

Better late than never.

At least we’d be running government like a business — you know, to borrow another mantra from the Statehouse.

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It pays for more than just housing, it also covers the cost of meals, etc... Many business use this in lieu of expenses because it saves a ton of time and accounting expenses..
But, if you want to end it for Idaho Legislature, end it for the Federal Govt as well...also for professional athletes...
This is another deal blown way out of proportion, a smokescreen that has no impact on real issues or savings potentials.

reimburse me

For a motel at The Grove.
For dinner at Chandlers
and lots of other things.

A reimbursement system is not going to save money.

If you tell legislators they will be reimbursed for regular costs up to $122/day, how much do you think they will spend?

Give em $122/day and they will save money their money by sleeping in an SUV.

The dollar amount and the distance factor may be the issue to review.

Try to tackle something that is doable.

What kind of businesses give a per diem but don't expect

an expense report? The companies I've worked for all allowed expenses up to the "per diem" amount, but never paid anything without receipts.
Hey Statesman staff, could you please adjust the filter? A person can't even write doc..mentaion without directions to remove "c..m"!

choo choo

Never worked for Union Pacific have you?

LOTS of smart companies do it that way.

Is their per diem exempt from taxes?

Is that the reason they don't just give them a pay raise and forget about the whole thing? If you aren't going to hold them accountable in anyway, why bother?

Pay raise in lieu of is not a good idea

Well, I'm sure the Ada County legislators would love to have a $122 per day pay raise, which is what you are suggesting.

Hardworking tax paying

Hardworking tax paying Idahoans must ask if these GOP system abusers, claim the additional in kind income without declaring it on your tax return?

We must demand tax returns to verify they file the benefit on their income tax return.

There are prohibitions on using taxpayer resources for anything other than the performance of official duties.

Members who choose sleep in their offices to save per diem for personal use are receiving a taxable benefit.

The IRS treats lodging as a taxable fringe benefit unless it is offered on the employer's business premise.

The question is, are McKenzie & McGee and all the other Idaho legislators who pocket this public tax dollar allowance for personal use be considered tax dodgers...?

Have McKenzie and McGee declared that additional personal income benefit on their tax returns with a total dollar figure?

These Idaho legislative members might be avoiding pay taxes on the fair market value of their lodging and travel expenses, while saving tax payer provided per diems for job use for personal use.

Once again

The per diem allowance IS taxable income. That means the State, whoever process the W-2 forms for legislators, must report the income to IRS and the State Tax Commission.