Boots & Sabers

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1213, 09 Jan 15

Assembly Considers Per Diems

It’s an interesting proposal.

The Assembly is planning to increase the amount members can collect for overnight stays in Madison from $88 to $138.

It would be the first such increase since 2001, when an Assembly committee set the rate for what is known as a per diem at $88 for lawmakers outside Dane County and $44 for Dane County lawmakers.

Per diems are a fixed amount meant to cover food and lodging costs while lawmakers are in Madison doing state business.


The new policy would limit lawmakers to collecting two per diems per week, unless one of the visits was an overnight stay, in which case it would be limited to one per week — even if the lawmakers need to travel to the Capitol more than that.

Legislators from Dane County, who currently can claim $44 for each day they come to the Capitol to conduct business, would be able to claim the $69 reimbursement, but not the higher amount for a hotel stay. Those who live within 25 miles of Madison would no longer receive mileage reimbursement for travel expenses.

What Vos is trying to accomplish makes sense. The problem with the per diem methodology – irrespective of the amount – is that it pays the same for the guy in Beaver Dam who goes home every night as it does for the one in Hudson who has to stay. That allows legislators who live within an easy drive of Madison to really rack up their per diems by just driving over, checking their email at the office, and heading home. The goal should be to reasonably provide for the legislators’ reasonable expenses, but not allow it to be a profit center for them. Overall, the existing $88 for an overnight stay that has to include lodging and meals is low compared to what is normal in the private sector. $138 is closer to normal. $69 per day that only has to cover meals is too high for a town like Madison.

The good thing about reimbursing with a per diem is that although it is susceptible to some folks gaming the system, it also encourages them to be frugal about their expenses. If we wanted to eliminate the gaming, we could reimburse actual expenses with some sort of cap, but that would be an administrative expense and hassle and would certainly cost the taxpayers more as legislators spend to the maximum allowed.

The proposed plan is better than the old system. It’s not perfect and I would make a few changes, but it’s a step in the right direction.


1213, 09 January 2015


  1. Captain Ned


    For giggles I looked up the Federal GSA reimbursement rates for Madison. Federal employees get $97/night (pre-tax) for hotels and $56/day for meals.

  2. steveegg

    Let me get this straight:

    – Those who live outside the 25-mile-radius circle around the Capitol get $137.70 (inaccurately rounded up to $138 in almost all the reports) per night if they stay in Madison, plus instead of one round trip per week compensated in mileage reimbursement (in lieu of a day’s per diem), two round trips per week.

    – Those inside the 25-mile-radius circle get a bump from $44 per day to $68.85 (again, inaccurately rounded up to $69 in most reports I’ve seen) per day, but they lose their mileage reimbursement, which isn’t a loss at all because it came in lieu of a day’s per diem.

    I appreciate that the overall $137.70/day is exactly the 90% of the overall federal reimbursement allowed by state law (which the $88/day was when said law was passed in 2001), and that the hotels close to the Capitol were losing money by offering special Legislator rates, but I have two major problems:

    – That $68.85/day for meals is way too high, and far higher than the federal meal reimbursement, just as it almost certainly was in 2001 when the $44/day for Madison-area legislators was set. To be consistent with the spirit of the state law and given Ned’s figures above, that should be $50.40/day, which would still be a profit for the more-frugal representatives.

    – The secret ballot method of passing this is rather odious.

    There is potentially a third problem, especially with the doubling of the mileage allowance, but I haven’t seen anybody ask this question – is claiming mileage still in lieu of claiming a per diem?

  3. Owen

    I agree about the amount for just meals being too high, Steveegg. In most private companies I know who use a per diem for meals, it runs between $40-$50.

    As for mileage, I believe it is both. They can claim mileage if they live outside the 25-mile radius. Then they claim per diem that is supposed to cover lodging and meals. That makes sense to me because while the per diem can be the same for everyone because they are all staying in the same city, the mileage varies drastically depending on what part of the state they are coming from.

  4. steveegg

    I should amend the above by noting as the WSJ (and nobody else besides Owen in his excerpt) did – the per diems are capped at either 2 non-overnight per diems per week or 1 overnight per diem per week, instead of potentially being 5 days per week plus any weekend when the Legislature or relevant committee is in session. Given that, when the Legislature is in session, it typically meets 3 or 4 days per week, that is significant.

  5. steveegg

    I can see the point of allowing both mileage and at least a meals-only per diem (you can correct me, but I think it’s SOP in the private sector), but given the former state of the Assembly compensation (and the current state of the Senate compensation), allowing mileage and per diem on the same day is a rather significant change. I’m surprised nobody in the media explored whether that is the case.

  6. Owen

    Mileage and per diem is SOP in the private sector. I see your point now about mileage and per diem on the same day… I didn’t realize that it was the rule that they couldn’t and that that would be a change. Overall, though, I don’t have a problem with that. The purpose is to reimburse for expenses while “on the job.” So if a guy in Ashland gets in the car in the morning to drive to Madison, I don’t have a problem with them getting mileage, which is supposed to cover fuel, wear&tear, depreciation, etc. on the vehicle, and per diem to cover meals on the way.

    I also think there’s room for being more granular with per diem. A lot of companies, for example, have a “per diem” for individual meals like $10/breakfast, $15/lunch, and $25/dinner. (Yes, I know it’s not technically a per diem, but rather a flat meal reimbursement, but still…). That way if a legislator eats lunch at home and drives to Madison to be there for a meeting the next morning, he/she would only claim $25 in per diem for the dinner on the first day. It relies on a bit of honesty, but still alleviates the administrative expense of dealing with actual meal reimbursement with receipt management.

    The key, I think, is to have it work as best we can to reduce people gaming the system to use it as a source of income, but that has to be weighed against the administrative cost of enforcement.

  7. steveegg

    I really should not read things half-asleep. I completely misread the Legislative Reference Bureau’s 2009 synopsis of the travel and per diem allowances (page 3). The 1-round-trip allowance isn’t/wasn’t in lieu of a per-diem; the disallowance of a travel reimbursement because of a per diem reimbursement is for official travel outside of Madison on the same day a per diem is claimed. Further, the reduced $44/day per diem is/was not necessarily limited to those in Dane County, but to anybody who didn’t stay overnight in Madison.

    That makes the only “good” thing about the change the fact that, unlike the old (and current Senate) per diems and mileage reimbursements, the per diems can be taken only a limited number of times per week.

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