Minnesota lawmakers stay home, collect pay meant for daily expenses

The Minnesota Legislature paid $2 million to cover lawmakers' daily expenses this year, even though many lawmakers worked from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A dozen lawmakers who said they were at the state Capitol on fewer than 10 session days this year collected their full per diems, a months-long FOX 9 analysis of finance records and House and Senate journals indicates. Dozens of others who stayed away from the Capitol most days still collected thousands of their per diem allowance.

TRACK YOUR LEGISLATOR: A list of attendance and per diem by House and Senate

Per diem is paid out on top of lawmakers' $47,300 base salary. Senators can collect $86 a day, seven days a week during session, boosting their pay by more than $13,000 this year. House members can take $66 a day, adding nearly $10,000 to their pay. Per diem is meant to cover lawmakers' costs of coming to St. Paul, though no receipts are required. 

Critics of per diem say the fact that lawmakers continued collecting it while working from home proves it's simply a backdoor bonus.

"If you are at home in your den wearing your fuzzy slippers, you’re not incurring those additional expenses. You are already being paid to do your job," said David Schultz, a Hamline University political science professor. 

The pandemic brought historic changes in the way the House and Senate did business. For the first time, lawmakers were allowed to vote -- and, in the House, debate -- from remote locations. Members chimed in from their home offices or their cars. One Republican senator played golf.

While lawmakers from both parties have proposed eliminating per diem, the practice has broad buy-in across the Legislature. Of the 201 legislators, only five haven't taken any per diem this year.

Top per diem collectors

Several House members collected the full $9,900 per diem for the regular and special sessions despite announcing their location as St. Paul on fewer than 10 of 62 days when the House required locations during roll call. The members were:

  • Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, 2 days in St. Paul
  • Rep. Ruth Richardson, DFL-Mendota Heights, 3 days
  • Rep. Patty Acomb, DFL-Minnetonka, 4 days
  • Rep. Connie Bernardy, DFL-New Brighton, 5 days
  • Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope, 5 days
  • Rep. Julie Sandstede, DFL-Hibbing, 6 days
  • Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, 7 days
  • Rep. Nolan West, R-Blaine, 8 days
  • Rep. Mohamud Noor, DFL-Minneapolis, 8 days
  • Rep. Eric Lucero, R-Dayton, 9 days

The roll calls, which are posted on the House website, were the only time during session when a lawmaker had to say his or her location. 

FOX 9 counted as in-person all lawmakers who announced their location as St. Paul because there was no way of knowing if a person was in a legislative office or at home in the city. Roll calls happen at the start of the day's session, meaning a lawmaker could have arrived in St. Paul after announcing his or her location elsewhere. Lawmakers used the honor system to announce their locations.

The Senate made it easier than the House to understand which lawmakers voted remotely on a given day: the daily journals list all such senators. Two senators collected the full $13,416 per diem for the regular and special sessions while voting remotely on all but a handful of days:

  • Sen. Jerry Newton, DFL-Coon Rapids, 1 day in St. Paul
  • Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, 7 days

In the Senate, 57 percent of members took the maximum per diem in the 2021 regular session, while only 15 percent took the max for the special session that was required to finish the budget. In the House, 37 percent collected the full per diem in the regular session while 51 percent took the entire amount for the special session.

What lawmakers are saying

Newton, the senator who voted remotely on all but one day, said he stayed away from the Capitol for medical reasons. Both Newton and his wife were undergoing chemotherapy during the session, he said.

"I did not want to expose myself, my wife or (my legislative assistant) to contracting COVID-19 because of being in a room or elevator with legislators or staff who refused to be vaccinated," Newton said in an email.

As for why he took the full per diem for daily expenses, Newton said he didn't miss a meeting all session because of not being physically at the Capitol.

Pelowski, the House member who said he was in his hometown of Winona for 60 of 62 roll call votes, did not respond to requests for an interview about why he took the maximum per diem.

Lowest per diem collectors

Five lawmakers -- all from the House -- have taken no per diem in 2021. They are Cal Bahr, R-East Bethel; Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester; Erik Mortensen, R-Shakopee; Kristin Robbins, R-Maple Grove, and Steve Sandell, DFL-Woodbury. 

Robbins was the only member to be in the House chamber for every roll call vote in this year's regular session. In an interview, the second-term lawmaker said she's taken per diem in past sessions but decided not to after the pandemic forced businesses across the state to close.

"I felt personally that was a way I could show my constituents I understood what they’re going through and I’m sharing a little bit in what that looks like," Robbins said. "I clearly understand (not taking per diem) is not for everyone."

Calls for change

While lawmakers widely support per diem, the independent board that sets their base salaries does not. In March, the Legislative Salary Council blasted per diem as a "non-transparent form of additional salary." The council called on the House and Senate to eliminate per diems and reimburse only for actual expenses.

Minnesota already has a reimbursement system for mileage, lodging, and internet and phone bills that's separate from per diem. Lodging benefits are only available for lawmakers who live at least 50 miles from the Capitol.

Forty-four states use per diem, though many states have requirements that Minnesota does not. Some make per diem available only for overnight stays or for lawmakers who live a certain distance from the Capitol.

Minnesota's two top legislative leaders defended per diem and said many lawmakers who stayed away from the Capitol this year were working hard.

"We were all working – we were just working differently," House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said in an interview. "So I think it’s entirely appropriate that people got paid regardless of what location they were working from during COVID-19."

Likewise, Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller said per diem should be considered part of the Minnesota Legislature's compensation package.

"The per diem, there’s a lot more that goes into it other than if someone showed up or not," Miller, R-Winona, said in an interview. He acknowledged that lawmakers who collected per diem while working at home might raise questions: "I would say that's a valid argument and a valid concern."

Changes are unlikely

Per diem is unlikely to go away without a major overhaul to the part-time Legislature's pay structure. 

Hortman has called for such a change, suggesting the Legislature needs to be full-time like 10 other states. As the number of special sessions has increased in recent years and the state budget has grown, the work has put a strain on lawmakers' personal and professional lives, she said.

"It used to be a pretty static five-month period of the year," Hortman said. "As it’s bled into more months of the year with more special sessions, I think members are feeling the financial strain of trying to juggle supporting a family on a salary that’s reflecting a part-year workload that really demands our time more than part of the year."

Such a move would require voters to approve a constitutional amendment. 

First, the House and Senate would both need to sign off -- and don't count Miller among the supporters.

"Rather than come in for four, five or six months at a time each and every year – I think it’s too much," he said. "Instead of a full-time Legislature, I would actually recommend the complete opposite and say we meet less as a Legislature."