BOISE Republican Sen. John McGee of Caldwell lives 26 miles from the Idaho Capitol but takes an extra per diem payment from taxpayers for a second residence that adds up to some $6,000 annually even though he lives with his parents in their Boise home during the session.
Another Republican, Sen. Curt McKenzie of Nampa, took extra per diem cash during the 2011 Legislature while sleeping on his small law firm's couch.
By taking the money, they're not just boosting their annual pay. They'll likely see higher pension payments when they retire.
Some lawmakers say it's appropriate to take the extra cash only if they're actually paying for a second residence. Members of the panel that helps set lawmakers' compensation say such arrangements may violate the spirit of the payments: to make sure lawmakers from distant cities who need a home away from home don't suffer financial hardship.
That's not probably kosher, said Don Burtenshaw, a former GOP senator from Terreton who sits on the Citizen's Committee for Legislative Compensation. But you can't make a rule for everybody that will fit every situation. If he's on the fringe of it, most people will recognize what's kosher and what isn't.
Legislators without a second residence receive $49 per day. They can also get mileage reimbursements.
Those who win approval for a second residence from House Speaker Lawerence Denney and Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill get $122 per day. They also receive a reimbursement for once-weekly travel costs to and from Boise, a provision allowing lawmakers from the far north or east of Idaho to fly or drive home to constituents and family.
McGee, who as majority caucus chair is the fourth-most-powerful Idaho senator, represents Caldwell, about 26 miles from the Capitol. Rather than drive home, he sometimes sleeps at his parents' home in Boise. He's requested the $122 per diem.
McGee, who pleaded guilty to drunken driving after his June arrest for wrecking a stranger's car, declined to say whether he pays rent to his mom and dad.
I qualify for per diem just like every other legislator, McGee told The Associated Press in a text message. These matters are handled by (Brent Hill's) office. I suggest you talk to him.
In previous years, McKenzie, who lives 20 miles away in Nampa, said he's rented a private apartment. But he slept on the couch at his Boise law office this year while claiming the $122 per diem.
He said taking the additional money is justified because he otherwise could have rented a smaller law office without space for a couch.
We could have gotten a much cheaper rent somewhere else, McKenzie said.
Hill approves second-residence requests but doesn't check to see where senators are living. He said he didn't know McGee was sleeping at his parent's home.
For legislators who live beyond 50 miles from Boise, federal law shields their per diem payments from taxes.
But for legislators who live within 50 miles of the Capitol, their per diem payments whether $49 or $122 count as taxable income.
Consequently, part-time lawmakers like McGee and McKenzie are bolstering their state retirement pension payments by taking the $122 per diem, because their pension payments will be based on their taxable incomes.
In the 88-day 2011 session, for instance, McGee boosted his income to $26,852, from $20,428 if he only got a $49 per diem.
Hill, an accountant, pointed out that there's no requirement that people who receive per diem payments actually spend them. A truck driver could save money by sleeping in the cab without being required to return per diem he gets from his company.
The lawmakers are in accordance with the law, Hill said. Then, it becomes more of a matter of opinion of how far above the law they should go because they're being held to a different standard.
Some other Canyon County lawmakers take the $122 rather than return home, but they pay for a second residence.
Rep. Darrell Bolz, a Republican from Caldwell, pays $50 per night at Boise's Safari Inn during the session and stays there from Monday through Friday. He arrives at the Capitol at 6 a.m. every morning to prepare for meetings of the budget committee where he's a vice chairman without worrying about traffic or weather.
But Bolz said he'd only claim $49 per day if he found a place to stay for free.
If you're living with a family member and they aren't charging you, why should you be charging the state anything? Bolz said.
House Majority Leader Mike Moyle said he'd tell this to area lawmakers asking about whether to take the $49 or the $122: I don't think it smells good, I don't think it looks good and if it were one of my members, I would highly advise against it.