Idaho Legislative Per Diem Payments Response to A Constituent

I received the following inquiry from a constituent today, which I responded to, and which I thought was relevant to pass on to all constituents with a few additions given the media stories and public interest on the issue:

Q: I have been hearing a lot on the radio about how some members of the House and Senate use (misuse) per diem. What is your understanding of the proper use of it? I think it should be limited to those who are outside of the Treasure Valley. What do you propose to do about this issue in the next session?

A: Per diem is a non-receipted compensation for travel expenses related to work, including lodging, food and other travel related expenses. Both business and government use it as a way of allowing reimbursement for travel expenses without having to spend time and money accounting for or micromanaging every expense and how closely each meets the definition of travel expense. It is premised on the fact that such expenses may vary daily due to the circumstances of each employee, and that it may be more efficient to provide a set amount per day for each employee. Certainly the use of per diem is within the province of any business to decide, however, when taxpayer money is involved, it is a valid and legitimate concern to question the use of per diem.

Interestingly, in all of the discussion, I have seen no mention of the fact that Idaho legislative salaries and expense reimbursement levels and rules are in the hands of a Citizens’ Committee on Legislative Compensation, and is not set by the legislature. There are 6 members of the committee, three appointed by the Governor, three appointed by the Supreme Court, and zero appointed by the Legislature. The committee meets every two years to determine what is appropriate compensation to pay legislators for the next term. The committee considers what is fair compensation and reimbursement to encourage and allow citizens to take leave of their businesses, employment or other pursuits to take care of the people’s business, while at the same time not making it so generous as to create a professional legislature. We are fortunate in Idaho to still have a part-time, citizen legislature where many varied backgrounds are represented, and where most of the legislators continue to be active in their real world professions.

Recent stories about two local Senators receiving higher per diem for second accommodations with relatives or at a business office, have led to further questions about the whether per diem should be used at all. I believe that this is a fair inquiry, and that there is reason to revisit use of per diem compensation both in concept and in amount. However, I believe that the Citizens’ Committee is the best place for that to occur. The whole point of the committee is to divorce the legislature from voting on their own salary and reimbursement, and to spend its time focused on the many other complex issues which must be addressed. So my answer is, yes, I think the issue needs to be reexamined, but I do not think the legislature should be in the middle of it. It should be in the hands of the Citizens Committee on Legislative Compensation. You can review the pertinent laws at Idaho code sections 67-406, 406 (a) and 406 (b) if you are interested. I hope this answers your question. Thanks for writing. Rep. Luker

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