Wisconsin Lawmakers May Boost Their Daily Expense Allowances

Senate Considering Higher Per Diem Rate; Assembly Boosted Rate In 2015

Wisconsin State Capitol
Justin Kern (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Wisconsin lawmakers receive salaries of $51,000 a year. But they can actually receive more than that – in part due to an allowance they receive to cover the expenses of traveling to and from the state Capitol for legislative business.

The system gives Senate and Assembly members a per diem payment, which they can keep if they don’t use it to cover costs.

“It’s based on whenever they work in Madison to work on state business,” said Keegan Kyle, an investigative reporter for USA Today Network-Wisconsin who has reported on a State Senate proposal to boost per diem rates. “The maximums are basically the same for everybody except for people who live in Madison or Dane County. They have special rules because they’re so close to the Capitol.”

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The per diem system, Kyle said, doesn’t require lawmakers to submit receipts or lists of travel expenses for reimbursement. “They basically fill out a single-page form,” he said. “At the bottom of (the form) they say, ‘I worked these days in Madison,’ under penalty of perjury, and then they usually receive the money.”

The two chambers have different per diem systems. The state Senate’s per diem rate is $88 per day, but the state Assembly has different limits depending on whether a lawmaker stays overnight for legislative work. The maximum per diem payment for an overnight stay in Madison is $138. There’s a $69 daily limit for work days without overnight stays.

The state Assembly set a higher per diem rate for overnight stays in 2015. To control costs, the chamber also lowered limits on how many single-day per diem payments a lawmaker could claim.

“The goal at the time was raising lodging days and lowering single days would kind of even out,” Kyle said. “It didn’t exactly work out that way. The costs soared during the first year, to the point that the Assembly had to incur strict limits on how many days legislators could claim in the second year.”

Senate leadership, including Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, are now considering a plan to raise its per diem rate by about 31 percent, to $115 per day from $88 per day.

Kyle reported that would increase the roughly $200,000 annual cost of Senate per diems by $62,000.

He said both Republican and Democratic lawmakers use the per diem system, and that there haven’t been many signs of opposition within the Legislature. But, Kyle said he’s heard from readers who oppose a per diem hike. “We’ve received a lot of reader response to our articles, people who don’t think that legislators should be increasing the per diem rates,” he said. “So there is some opposition to it, but it’s not necessarily, I think, in the Capitol.”

Most states cover legislators’ expenses to some degree, and compared to the costs of health care, education or roads, per diem is a relatively small government outlay.

But Kyle said it’s still one worth knowing about.

“Right now the per diem system is this strange system of receipts that a lot of other people don’t use in state government (or) federal government,” he said. “I think legislators are trying to find this balance of, how much do we allow people to receive to fairly compensate them for their expenses while also trying to control costs and make sure that it is not costing taxpayers a lot of money.”