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Pioneeer Editorial: Per diems only cover expenses

The issue of Minnesota legislative per diems has been bantered about for years. Many argue that as part-time citizen legislators, salary should be enough. Sometimes, per diem payments add to more than the salary a lawmaker gets.

In the latest battle, the Minnesota Court of Appeals last week let stand a ruling that the Minnesota Legislature can grant itself an increase in per diem payments without violating the State Constitution.

At the heart of the matter, the court said, is that per diems are not considered compensation, which the Constitution prohibits lawmakers from raising their own salary. Thus, any changes in salary always take effect after the next election has been held.

The group Citizens for Rule of Law challenged the Legislature with a lawsuit in 2008 saying legislators violated the State Constitution by approving increases to set per diems at $96 a day for Senate members and $77 for House members. The suit asked for reimbursement of the overpayment or the court declare them ineligible to seek re-election.

Ramsey County District Court dismissed the lawsuit, noting the Constitution doesn't define expenses -- per diems are allowances for daily expenses such as meals and travel -- as compensation. The court found that they are "remuneration and other benefits received in return for services rendered."

Minnesota lawmakers make $31,140 a year in compensation, a salary unchanged since 1999.

Lawmakers ought to be paid for expenses for a job we have elected them to perform. The real rub comes in "expenses." Many lawmakers collect per diems even though we believe they should not. For instance, a metro lawmaker who lives a mile or two from the State Capitol has no business collecting per diems for meals, travel or lodging, yet many do to the tune of thousands of dollars a year.

Lawmakers from our area typically are near the top in per diems -- and that's because they deserve them. Many must take out apartments during the week and are away from their families weeks at a time during the final weeks of the session. Asking them to commute daily to the Capitol from 250 or 300 miles a way is not logical.

So rather than argue over per diems themselves and if they amount to an illegal pay raise, the Legislature should establish firm rules on what is eligible for per diems. Legislators who live within a set number of miles from the Capitol should be ineligible. But rules need to be flexible if that lawmaker is asked to attend a committee hearing overnight in Bemidji to collect the per diem.

Per diems ought not be a political issue, just one of simply reimbursing a lawmaker for expenses.