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Per-diem report raises compensation debate

No one is accusing any southeastern Minnesota legislators of padding their expense accounts. But the figures released last week likely caught the attention of more than a few constituents — especially those who think a $96 per diem for state senators is a bit excessive.

Sen. Ann Lynch, DFL-Rochester, is among 18 legislators whose reimbursements, totaling more than $32,000, exceeded the annual legislator salary of $31,140. None of the other 17 are from southeastern Minnesota.

"I’m on a couple of significant committees, including the Health Care Access Commission and the capital investment committee," she said when questioned last week by the Post-Bulletin about her expenses. "It’s certainly no secret that health care reform is at the forefront of discussions at the Legislature, and there is significantly more work being done in the health care arena during the interim than perhaps is the norm."

On the other end of the scale is Rep. Andy Welti, DFL-Rochester, whose reimbursements totaled $12,560. Welti appears to be trying to make a point, as he is taking less than the $77 per diem House members can claim.

How much scrutiny should Lynch receive for her high expenses? And how much credit should Welti get for pinching pennies?

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These are debatable questions.

In Lynch’s defense, legislator pay hasn’t increased since 1998, so it’s not unreasonable for her or any other legislator to keep meticulous expense records — even though, as she said, "Not all legislators turn in their mileage." Furthermore, the recent increase in senators’ per diem from $66 to $96 had bipartisan support, and we can’t expect her to not to claim it.

As for the amount of travel she puts in, it’s hard to criticize ambition in a freshman senator, and clearly she misses no opportunity to represent her district.

Welti, on the other hand, appears to have carved out a niche as a hard-working, pavement-pounding, door-knocking legislator. That’s admirable, but we certainly hope his attempts to keep expenses down don’t keep him from moving up the ladder of influence in the House. He’s in his second term, and we expect him to begin cutting a wider swath in the future, which likely will mean spending more of the taxpayers’ money in expenses.

Ideally, legislators would find a happy medium between Lynch and Welti — or better still, a long-overdue increase in legislators’ salaries, perhaps with a corresponding decrease in the per diem, would make this discussion unnecessary.

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