Wisconsin state legislators were reimbursed $1.16 million in 2013 to cover the expense of traveling to Madison from their home districts, a nearly 50 percent increase from 2012.
Lawmakers are paid as full time employees with a base salary of $50,000 per year. The additional per diem payments they receive are to cover the cost of traveling to Madison from their respective districts for Capitol business. These costs include expenses such as gas money, meals and the cost of staying in Madison hotels.
Because this money is to be used for travel expenses, legislators from Dane County are allotted only $44 a day while lawmakers from outside districts are paid $88 for every day they visit the Capitol, according to the Legislative Reference Bureau.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, led for both houses with the highest reimbursement claimed at $16,544 for 188 days of work at the Capitol. Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, led the houses in days claimed at 243, although he was only compensated $10,692 because he lives in Dane County, Wisconsin Election Watch reported.
“Per diems are half the amount in Dane County as they are treated as income, and have social security withholding,” Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, said. “Those outside of Dane County are tax free and they are worth twice as much.”
According to Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, part of the reason for the increase in per diem reimbursements between 2012 and 2013 is because 2013 was a budget year.
During budget years, legislators tend to travel more to their Madison offices to spend time discussing the details of proposed legislation, Heck said.
“Overall you’re always going to see higher per diem payments in an odd numbered year because that’s the year when the budget is crafted,” Heck said. “In an even year, the Legislature is rarely in session much past the end of March and that was certainly the case this year.”
Heck said another reason per diem payments have increased is because state lawmakers have not received a raise in many years. However, compared to surrounding states Wisconsin lawmakers’ salaries are “quite generous,” Heck said.
“In terms of actually being more productive, I don’t think anyone would say that the Wisconsin Legislature is working harder or doing more than they were 10 years ago,” he said.
All per diem charges are entirely funded by taxpayer dollars, Risser said.
Heck added the legislators report the charges individually through an honor system.
“We like to assume that our lawmakers are not breaking the law,” Heck said. “If a legislator is in the Legislature to make money then they’re in the wrong business; they should be there to serve the public.”