State Sen. Don Benton doesn’t keep an office in his district, but never let it be said he’s not in touch with what’s happening back home. He goes there often, at public expense.
Taxpayers reimbursed Republican Benton about $120 for each of 17 round trips between Olympia and his home of Vancouver during last year’s 60-day legislative session, more trips to a home district than reported by any other lawmaker. In 2013’s 105-day session, the state paid him to make the drive 35 times. Special sessions added more.
Those trips to Clark County, where he continues to work a county job during session, helped drain an expense account that many other lawmakers use for an office to field constituent inquiries. Benton said while he had a district office earlier in his 20-year legislative career, paid travel home lets him show up in person at places like ceremonies honoring Boy Scouts.
“Look, I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve figured it out. I’ve figured out what works for me and what works best for my constituents, and what I’m doing now seems to work best for both of us,” Benton said. “It allows me accessibility to go to some meetings in the evening in my district.”
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Taxpayers will have to take his word about the meetings. While the state House asks members seeking reimbursements to give a reason for the trips, the Senate operates largely on a honor system in which senators are supposed to keep records but don’t have to make them public.
The Senate alone paid its members at least $190,000 for 2014 travel, records show — averaging just more than $3,800 per senator and led by the $14,900 paid to Sen. Linda Evans Parlette. That was in addition to the stipend lawmakers receive during legislative sessions for food, rent and the like, which increased last year to $120 a day.
Some rarely ask for mileage. Those who do often spend it between sessions crisscrossing their districts, which can add up quickly when a district covers 8,700 square miles, as Wenatchee Republican Parlette’s does — the state’s largest, she says.
But some senators also routinely take reimbursements during session, usually on weekends.
Under Internal Revenue Service rules and the Legislature’s own guidelines, reimbursements are not allowed for mere commutes. But in the Senate, the rules requiring a legislative purpose for travel haven’t always been followed over the years, and administrators say the rules haven’t always been clear.
Five senators returned money this month after reimbursements were questioned by The News Tribune and The Olympian during a review of lawmakers’ expense records.
Parlette returned $100.80 of what she received last year to commute from the Capitol to a rental home a couple miles away. But like other senators, she defended the practice of paid travel to her district.
Parlette, who recently took over leadership of a Senate committee on administrative matters that Benton had chaired, said senators need more clarity on what they are allowed to do.
She said the committee would talk about whether the Senate needs to hire an accountant.
PAYING FOR COMMUTES
Sen. Randi Becker says she wishes she had had such clarity years ago.
At the end of a long day in session, the second-term senator heads to her “home away from home”: a fifth-wheel RV. Parked inside a gated recreational-vehicle park just south of Olympia, the Montana-brand 34-foot trailer is where she catches up on work and finds a little peace and quiet.
It takes just minutes for her BMW to zip 10 miles from the Capitol to the RV with a view of Deep Lake and the calls of towhees, Steller’s jays and chickadees in the air. It beats driving more than an hour to her home in Eatonville.
“This gives me the ability to have a couple hours of time to work every night,” Becker said.
Before this year, taxpayers reimbursed her for the commute, a little more than $11 for each round trip.
Becker said Senate staff assured her that was allowed. She’s upset, she said, now that she knows differently.
“I’m going to pay it back. I don’t want anything ever said that I’ve been dishonest,” Becker said.
She wrote the Senate a check for $502.65 for 44 round trips in 2014.
At least since 2009, the Legislature has operated under a system intended to comply with IRS rules that don’t allow reimbursements for commutes. Reimbursed trips are supposed to have a legislative purpose.
“Just going back home is not a legislative purpose. That’s a commute,” Secretary of the Senate Hunter Goodman said.
But Senate administrators didn’t demand Becker or Parlette pay back commute mileage from before 2014. That’s because the senators had relied on Senate advice.
“The way the rule had been interpreted, it was very vague,” Goodman said.
EASING INTO ENFORCEMENT
Administrators say the policy became more clear in the past year or so, after advice from the IRS prompted a closer look at some senators’ practices. The Senate stopped paying Sen. Karen Fraser for her commutes starting in 2014.
Fraser, a Democrat and another former chairwoman of the administrative committee, represents the district that includes the Capitol. She lives less than 10 miles away.
While that added up to hundreds of dollars a year, Fraser notes that she doesn’t take the daily stipend nearly all lawmakers receive. That amounts to thousands of dollars a year she has declined. She opted instead to take much smaller reimbursements for food purchases and, for years, her commute.
As Fraser understood it, “The Senate policy was that because I was not taking per diem during the session I could charge trips, basically business trips from home to the office.”
The Senate didn’t require her to pay back money. And it was sometimes hard to tell if anyone else was making the same kinds of trips, since senators didn’t have to itemize each trip separately until after a recent software change.
The other money lawmakers returned this month — a bit more than $500 combined — was for trips they were allowed to take, but for which they were paid twice out of two different accounts. There’s no evidence they were more than clerical errors. Paying it back were Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond; Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island; and Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center.
The returned payments come a few months after Sen. Pam Roach repaid the Senate about $4,500 she had used to make frequent trips to a post office. Her campaign opponents had attacked Roach, R-Auburn, for receiving public funds to check a post office box she used for both campaign and official business.
GAPS IN RECORDS
Paid local commutes appear relatively rare in recent years. Paid travel back to a district is more common, an analysis of records found.
Hatfield took seven paid round trips to his district over the 9-week period surrounding the 2014 session, while Parlette, Sen. Barbara Bailey and Sen. Doug Ericksen took eight apiece. Those counts include their initial trips to Olympia to begin the session.
Ericksen, R-Ferndale, and Hatfield said they were constantly talking to constituents. “Inevitably, you’re having meetings when you go home,” Hatfield said.
Lawmakers may not all have the same definition of legislative business.
“There may not be formal meetings, but I’m a regular church attender,” said Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, who said trips home give her the chance to gather feedback on what lawmakers are doing.
“I usually have meetings, but I also have a lot of phone calls,” said Parlette, the caucus chairwoman for majority Republicans. “I consider that working.”
As to why the calls can’t be made from Olympia, she said: “If you want to have a good marriage, it’s important to get out of here.”
The House, where members tend to travel home less frequently at public expense, expects the representatives to explain their travel requests. That doesn’t keep some House members from avoiding specifics by citing “constituent meetings,” but many give thorough explanations.
Senators, by contrast, often omit any description of why they are traveling or with whom they are meeting. The Senate doesn’t require it.
Senators are supposed to keep their own records of the meetings, but no one routinely checks to make sure they do so. The public can’t check because lawmakers have exempted their own records from public-disclosure laws.
The News Tribune and The Olympian asked to review several senators’ records from trips home during session, but only Rivers was game.
Others said they wanted to protect constituents’ identities or their own personal business that they mix with their official calendars. Or they said they no longer had the relevant records at hand.
A brief review of Rivers’ calendar in her office showed that while some weekends in question were blank, more often her calendar reflected a busy schedule.
“Some weekends,” Rivers said, “I’m literally going from event to event.”
EXTRA TRIPS APPROVED
Lawmakers’ travel expenses are not unlimited. They must fit most of them, in and out of session, into the $7,800 allowance each receives per year for “business expenses,” an amount the House quietly increased last month to match the Senate.
Mileage competes for that money with anything else a lawmaker wants reimbursed, such as a district office, cellphone plan or dry cleaning.
Some senators barely tapped into their expense accounts last year — Republican John Braun of Centralia used none of it — while eight came within $60 of exhausting their accounts.
Above and beyond what the expense account pays, the House and Senate pay directly out of their budgets for many kinds of trips.
In the interim, that includes drives or flights to wherever committees are meeting. During a session, the House will pay directly for each lawmaker to make a single round trip between home and Olympia for the regular session, plus a second trip — and a third in budget years — to meet with constituents at town hall meetings. The Senate will pay directly for three round trips, or five in budget years like this one.
What’s more, the Senate administrative committee voted ahead of the current session to allow an additional five round trips this year for the 16 senators who live more than 100 miles away from Olympia. Each of those trips must have a legislative purpose.
The Senate estimates the change could cost up to $20,250 this year if the senators use all their extra trips. Benton, Parlette, Ericksen and Bailey are among the lawmakers who benefit.
The change will free up money in expense accounts that senators could use for more trips home or other expenses.
But Becker criticized the policy change as discriminating against lawmakers who live closer.
And Ranker, one of those far-flung lawmakers, suggests the Senate should cover the cost of travel home regardless of whether senators have meetings — to make sure ordinary people can serve in the Legislature.
“I have a six-year-old girl at home. Don’t make me choose,” Ranker said.
Ranker, a budget writer, took no paid trips home to Orcas Island last year after taking more than a dozen during the on-again, off-again work of the 2013 special sessions. A partner in a policy advising group in his other life, Ranker said he gave up half his income to become a senator with a $42,106 base salary.
There are staffers in the Legislature making twice or even three times that amount and lobbyists making 10 times as much, Hatfield noted. A salary-setting panel will decide in May whether to go through with a proposed 11.2 percent raise to lawmakers’ base pay, which has been frozen for seven years.
“I get concerned,” Ranker said, “at one point we’re going to wake up with a Legislature that is either rich and/or old.”
Wealth didn’t appear to make a difference in whether lawmakers opted to take reimbursements for traveling home. Benton and Parlette, for example, each report having assets worth multiple millions of dollars.