- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 26, 2017

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Legislative leaders say there’s no easy solution to address questions surrounding how much Idaho lawmakers are entitled to receive toward their expenses.

State legislators received a total of nearly $1 million in per diem payments this year - money they can spend however they want with no accountability.

Scrutiny of the system increased this year when Idaho Falls Republican Rep. Janet Trujillo received an extra $6,400 to cover the cost of living in a separate residence during the legislative session in Boise, even though she is married to House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, who lives roughly 20 miles away from the Statehouse.

According to legislative rules, Trujillo didn’t violate the system, but the situation has sparked renewed interest in possible changes.

“I think it needs to be flexible but also fair,” said Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill. “What does that look like? I don’t know.”

Meanwhile, House Speaker Scott Bedke said he plans on talking to his GOP House caucus before the 2018 session about taking advantage of per diems, but didn’t offer a solution as to what lawmakers should do.

Legislators who work part-time and live outside Ada County receive $129 a day during the session to help cover the cost of a residence while the Legislature is in session. This year, 66 lawmakers from outside Ada County received $10,320 each during the 80-day session.

Those who took advantage of the payments include Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, who owns his own place in Boise, and Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, who stays with his wife in Boise during the session. Malek’s wife lives in Boise full-time.

“We wouldn’t have bought a house in Boise if I wasn’t a lawmaker,” Malek said. “That is an extra expense. We use the money I get for being a lawmaker to pay for the mortgage on that second home.”

Meanwhile, 39 lawmakers who live within 50 miles of the Capitol and do not maintain a second residence during the session, received $49 a day - or $3,920 each for 80 days.

On top of that, every lawmaker gets a $17,358 annual salary, $2,250 expense account and reimbursements for travel costs.

But the state’s rules on salary and per diems don’t go much further than outlining those amounts - and there’s little agreement on who is in charge of changing it.

“I put all the responsibility on the legislative compensation committee,” said Bedke, an Oakley Republican, said about the biennial citizen’s panel that advises Idaho’s Legislature on compensation. “Politics should not be involved while making decisions about this.”

Debora Kristensen, chair of the legislative panel, said she’s willing to consider the issue but disagreed that leadership doesn’t have a stake in the system.

The committee only meets once every two years, as stated by law, to finalize broad recommendations that get passed along to the Legislature. Their next meeting won’t be until 2018, which is hardly a timely response to addressing current challenges, Kristensen said.

“We’re not here to police. It’s really up to leadership. If there’s an issue, they need to come to us,” she said. “But we’ve never been asked to give a certain level of specificity when drafting our recommendations.”

In 2011, The Associated Press revealed that two state senators were receiving higher per diems even though one slept in his law office and the other stayed in his parents’ home.

A year later, the compensation committee tweaked the system to provide a different amount for living outside Ada County.

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