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.