Washington taxpayers get $77,000 bill for most unproductive Legislature gathering in state’s history

Washington State Capitol Legislative Building in Olympia, Wash.

Washington State Capitol Legislative Building in Olympia, Wash.  (Wikimedia Commons)

The Legislature’s first overtime session this year tied the record for the most unproductive gathering of lawmakers in state history. That doesn’t mean it didn’t cost taxpayers.

Not a single bill passed through both chambers by the time the Legislature adjourned the 30-day session on Tuesday. Still, many lawmakers from both parties have continued claiming regular per diems totaling at least $77,000, according to an Associated Press review of records.

Those politicians are now back in Olympia for another special session because of squabbling over the budget, and they still have the option of collecting $90 per diems for every day until their work is complete. At the same time that legislators are adding to their overall compensation, agencies are preparing to send out notifications to state workers who may be temporarily laid off if no budget deal is reached.

Thornton Alberg, 47, a union leader who also supervises workers’ compensation claims managers, said a government shutdown may not just hurt government workers but could cause injured people to see a delay in their medical payments or benefits. Alberg said he didn’t even know how to feel about the fact that lawmakers were steadily claiming per diems through the process.

“It just doesn’t seem fair,” Alberg said.

The per diem totals are actually incomplete, since the House was able to produce numbers from only the first two weeks of the special session and the Senate hasn’t yet processed the final two days of the session. Once those numbers are in, the special-session cost could exceed $100,000. That number doesn’t include staff time, lawmaker mileage reimbursements and other expenses related to keeping the Capitol running.

Sen. Sharon Nelson, D-Vashon Island, accepted $2,340 in per diems -- declining two days’ worth when she took time off around the birth of her grandson. As a budget negotiator, she has been in Olympia regularly and maintained an apartment near the Legislature until this week.

“We were pretty much meeting every day or on call every day,” Nelson said. She contended that Democrats had been in Olympia negotiating in good faith, but said Republicans shouldn’t be getting per diems because she felt they have been stonewalling the process. A Republican-dominated majority in the Senate has argued that Democratic leaders have been to blame.

Some lawmakers claimed only partial or no per diems. Republican Sen. Andy Hill of Redmond, for example, has been the chief budget negotiator in the Senate. Despite his long days in that position, he hasn’t taken any per diems during the special session, saying lawmakers have collective guilt for not getting the job done on time.


Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, said it is his policy not to take per diems during overtime legislative sessions. He said lawmakers should consider a rule that would halt per diems if the Legislature doesn’t complete a budget by June 1.

“We shouldn’t be getting paid when we’re not doing our work within the time allotted,” Frockt said.

Records show that a third legislative session in 2001 also had zero bills pass, rivaling the current session for lack of productivity. Patrick McDonald, a special assistant to Secretary of State Kim Wyman who tracks legislative history for the office, said he couldn’t recall any other session in which the Legislature didn’t pass any new laws.

Lawmakers started a second special session on Wednesday and have already been making more progress. They finalized two bills late Thursday -- but still no budget.