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.