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Lawmakers collect thousands for expenses

ST. PAUL - Representative Al Juhnke does not shy away from his No. 1 ranking. The Willmar Democrat collected the most daily expense reimbursements of any Minnesota House member last year, even topping House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher. Juh...

ST. PAUL - Representative Al Juhnke does not shy away from his No. 1 ranking.

The Willmar Democrat collected the most daily expense reimbursements of any Minnesota House member last year, even topping House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher.

Juhnke, chairman of an agriculture and veterans affairs committee, said the $18,234 of per diem he took home in addition to a $31,140 legislative salary was the result of his busy committee schedule and other legislative responsibilities.

"I'm proud to be one of the hardest-working legislators in the state," he boasted.

Recent figures from the House and Senate show lawmakers sought a total of $2.36 million for daily expense reimbursements in 2007. That is on top of lawmakers' salary, mileage compensation and lodging reimbursement for rural legislators and those who travel for legislative duties.

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Often a controversial topic, legislative compensation got another look early in the 2007 session when a House committee increased the daily per diem limit from $66 to $77. The Senate limit is $96 daily, also up from $66.

Per diem is meant to cover lawmakers' meals and other work-related expenses, and receipts are not required for reimbursement.

Lawmakers still could add to the 2007 totals. House members have up to 90 days from the date of work activity to seek per diem, though most of the 2007 requests have been submitted.

"Why would you want to wait to get reimbursed for your expenses?" asked Minnesota House controller Paul Schweizer.

Senators can submit per diem requests for up to 60 days after the date of activity. For that reason, legislative staff said a small percentage of the 2007 per diem payments are for lawmakers' work at the end of 2006.

Annual per diem payments for senators who served most of 2007 averaged $14,703 in 2007. In the House, the average was $10,232.

Lawmakers with committee chairmanships topped the lists of per diem recipients in both legislative chambers, which mirrored per diem trends from recent years when Republicans controlled the House. Democrats took over control of the Legislature last year.

Tom Bakk, chairman of the Senate Taxes Committee, ranked sixth for per diem payments among the 67 senators. He said that was the result of many days spent trying to negotiate a new tax bill with Governor Tim Pawlenty following the governor's veto of a tax package after the regular legislative session concluded.

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"There's a reason I'm high in per diem this year," Bakk, DFL-Cook, told reporters recently. "Believe me. I'd rather not spend half the summer here."

Some Republicans and Democrats continue to take less than the maximum allowed per diem payments.

Senator Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, took $76 a day for per diem last year and said he'll seek $86 this year. A first-term legislator, Ingebrigtsen said he wants lawmakers to give their compensation a closer look.

"At least reduce it so that you don't have to go home and tell folks you need $96 to eat," Ingebrigtsen said.

The Legislature should consider increasing its annual salary limits to a certain percentage of the governor's salary and then slashing per diem payments or getting rid of the daily expense allowance altogether, he said.

Some say per diem provides equity among lawmakers.

"The per diem has a way of adding some fairness for those who have more assignments," said Representative Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead. Lanning said he serves on 14 committees and commissions and has been in St. Paul or elsewhere in Minnesota nearly every week since the 2007 regular session ended in May.

"So much for a part-time interim," he said.

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The media likes to report about lawmakers' compensation, Juhnke said, but it is not a top concern of most Minnesotans.

"I can walk with you today and we go right down the street in any town in Minnesota and knock on the door and say give me your top five legislative issues I should address this year," Juhnke said, "and per diem will never be mentioned - never."

LOCAL LEGISLATORS'

PER DIEM REQUESTS

The three state legislators representing all or part of Douglas County requested the following per diem amounts for 2007:

Senator Bill Ingebrigtsen - $11,020 (Senate average: $14,703).

Representative Torrey Westrom - $10,903; Representative Mary Ellen Otremba - $12,007 (House average: $10,232).

Minnesota legislators also receive an annual salary of $31,140 per year.

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