Utah lawmakers reimbursed for $160,000 in meals

Utah lawmakers reimbursed for $160,000 in meals

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Utah's 104 part-time lawmakers and their aides were reimbursed for more than $160,000 in meals over the past year, including many they never paid for.

An Associated Press review of legislative expenses found on transparent.utah.gov shows that the 29 member Senate was responsible for more than half of all meal reimbursements at $85,974, or an average of $2,964.62 per senator. The 75 member House's meal reimbursements totaled $74,248, or an average of $989.97 per representative.

The reimbursement totals include a handful of meals paid for by legislative staff.

The meal reimbursements came at a time legislators slashed jobs and eliminated programs as they trimmed the state budget by about $1 billion to accommodate declining revenues during one of the worst economic downturns in state history.

Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said he couldn't comment on the expenditures until he's had time to examine them. Messages left with House Speaker Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, were not immediately returned.

Citing budget pressures, Clark established a new travel policy for representatives this spring that limited lawmakers to spending $1,500 when they traveled out-of-state for national conferences, including hotel, travel registration and meals.

The Senate also cut back on out-of-state travel expenses by limiting the number of trips lawmakers could take.

In the past year, the Senate's out-of-state meal reimbursement totals were $6,704, and the House's was $4,606.

State lawmakers give themselves $54 to spend on meals every day they're called to work at the Capitol, including weekends during their annual 45-day session in which they stay home. They are also allowed to claim the per diem during special sessions and other scheduled meetings throughout the year, in addition to travel expenses.

No meal receipts are required to be reimbursed at the per diem rate. Because the per diem rate is tied to the federal rate, it will automatically go up to $61 a day on Oct. 1.

In comparison, state employees receive a maximum of $36 per day to spend on meals while traveling on official business in the state and must provide receipts before being reimbursed. There was no increase in the reimbursement rate this year.

For lawmakers who buy their own meals, it's often difficult to spend more than $10 on a meal at the Capitol cafeteria where many state workers, legislative staffers and interns buy breakfast and lunch.

But while the Legislature is in session, lawmakers rarely have to pick up the tab for their own meals.

Lobbyists spend hundreds of thousands of dollars every year sponsoring working lunches and receptions at the Capitol and taking legislators to expensive restaurants, enabling legislators to pocket the per diem money.

Rep. Neil Hansen, D-Ogden, said most lawmakers -- himself included -- don't feel guilty pocketing the per diem money because they only receive $130 a day salary for being lawmakers, and that is only paid when they're called into approved meetings. That amount is being reduced to $117 a day this year after lawmakers said they wanted to share in the budget pain with state agencies.

Hansen contends state legislators should be paid an annual salary. He says that would eliminate the need for per diem payments and allow legislators to turn down free meals from lobbyists.

"If we were to go to a salary, we would then be on the dime of the taxpayers and then all gifts should be banned because we would be on the taxpayer's money around the clock," Hansen said.

He said if legislators were paid salaries like state employees, it would be reasonable to only reimburse lawmakers for the meals they ate and at the same rate state workers can receive.

"As it is now, a lot of legislators feel we're not fairly compensated year round and that per diem rate is OK to be able to take," he said.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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