In terms of transparency, 2015 was a rough year for the state of Minnesota. The Washington based Center for Public Integrity saddled Minnesota with a D- grade for integrity and transparency in government. Minnesota’s integrity grade has slightly worsened, as it earned a D+ rating in 2012.
One area that contributed to the poor grade earned in 2015 is the state’s lack of transparency pertaining to legislator expenses. Closely related to legislator expenses is per diem pay. To clarify, “per diem” is pay that legislators can receive up to seven days a week during legislative sessions to fund travel and living expenses. Legislator expense reports were recently released, highlighting where each legislator spent money in 2015. Categories of expenses include: district travel, lodging, mileage, other travel, and other expenses.
Numerous legislators on both sides of the political aisle collected thousands of dollars in per diem pay, but did not expense any travel, lodging, travel within their district, or other living expenses. WCCO reports that legislators that collect per diem pay are not required to disclose what they utilize that pay for, which results in a citizenry unable to determine where their legislators are spending their tax funded per diems. Also, the lack of displaying where expenses were spent means there is no way for citizens to determine if expenses were utilized on what the legislator said they were. In other words, there is no verification process for reported expenses.
The House of Representatives member expense reports display that members collected $1,138,409.31 total in per diem pay. In the Senate per diem pay totaled $724,268. For both chambers combined, almost 2 million dollars was spent on per diem pay. It should be noted that per diem pay significantly adds to a legislator’s salary. The typical legislator makes on average just over $31,000 per year before receiving per diem pay.
Despite a year in which transparency and integrity in Minnesota state government has been rated low, there is reason to be optimistic about changes to per diem pay and expense openness. Speaker of the House Kurt Daudt and Representative Alice Huntsman collected the most in per diem pay in the House of Representatives, $13,398 and $10,494 respectively. In the Senate, Minority Leader David Hann ($16,426) and Senator Jeff Hayden ($16,082) collected the most in per diem pay. However, a representative in Senate Minority Leader David Hann’s office told Alpha News that Hann “would absolutely support a transparency policy that publishes all information related to legislator expenses on a monthly rolling basis.” The representative added, “he would even take it a step further, when Republicans are in the majority, to make that information available online in real time.”
In a late January press release, House Minority Leader Paul Thissen voiced his disappointment in Minnesota’s state legislature’s lack of transparency, specifically pointing to per diem pay and legislator expenses. Thissen calls for “increased reporting related to per diem and other public expenditures.” Additionally, Representative Thissen has put forth legislation that if passed would “Establish House policy to publish all information related to per diem, mileage, housing stipend, committee budgets, etc. on a rolling monthly basis.” The usage of monthly reports of per diem and expenses has the possibility of providing citizens with a clearer depiction of where their legislators are spending money, and on what.