During the Legislature's first workweek this year, 73 of the 75 Utah House members accepted lodging allowances of $96 a night or $480 total for each. But few actually stayed in hotels. Most commuted from home and simply pocketed the allowance.
That is made clear by what happened after a rule change was enacted that first week requiring that legislators from then on could be reimbursed for lodging only if they presented receipts. Just 18 of the 75 members bothered to do that during the rest of the 45-day session, according to records made available through an open-records request.
The results seem to validate an independent commission's recommendation to change salary and reimbursement rules this year. As Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said in debate, it "corrects the egregious problem of state legislators basically receiving money for hotels that they don't stay in and for meals they don't buy."
Under the change, Utah's part-time lawmakers now receive an annual base salary of $16,380. Previously, they were given a compensation package for essentially that same amount, which was roughly divided into thirds for daily pay and allowances for meals and lodging.
While members from distant areas actually had to spend allowances on hotels and meals, members from the nearby Wasatch Front could pocket it. "So members from urban areas were essentially paid twice as much as rural legislators," said Weiler, who personally had refused such allowances.
The new system still allows lawmakers to be reimbursed for exact amounts shown on receipts up to $96 a night for hotels and $38 a day for meals on top of the base salary.
Free meals • Surprisingly few lawmakers sought reimbursements after the new change, according to a review by The Salt Lake Tribune.
For example, just one of the 29 state senators Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork sought any reimbursement for meals under the new system. She asked for just $38, the cost of two meals at the Little America Hotel, where she stayed, and a breakfast sandwich and drink at the Capitol cafeteria.
Why didn't more members seek reimbursement for food?
"I think there are so many free meals," Weiler said, "that I think there's rarely a need to go out and purchase food."
As The Tribune earlier reported, social calendars show that state senators were offered free lunches on 32 of the session's 33 actual workdays by special-interest groups and lobbyists. Such groups offered 103 events in the House and Senate from meals to snacks, receptions, movies and other entertainment.
"I gained 15 pounds in my first session last year," thanks to all the free food, Weiler said.
Most House members 41 of 75 accepted some food reimbursement this year, but mostly because of a key difference in House and Senate procedure. The Senate until a change in mid-session allowed special-interest groups and lobbyists to buy lunches for its party caucus meetings, but House members always paid for their own.
Almost all of reimbursements sought by House members were just for those caucus lunches in part because the process for reimbursement of it was easy, with members needing just to sign a sheet passed around by staff without collecting or turning in receipts.
Big change • How much of a difference did the rule change this year make in money paid for meals and lodging?
In the first week of the session under the old rule, the House paid $57,305 in meal and lodging allowances. During the remaining six weeks, it paid just $47,306 or $7,884 per week.
In both chambers combined during all of 2012, meal and lodging allowances totaled $234,000, according to data on Utahsright.com. After the rule change, they were $66,400 during the final six weeks of the general session.
However, legislators figure the new system will cost taxpayers a bit more overall than the old one because of the higher base salary and budgeted an extra $150,000 to cover it.
Some members said it is possible that few members are seeking reimbursement for outside meals and lodging because they know that receipts are now public and the news media might report any dining in expensive restaurants or lodging in hotels by members who live fairly close.
But Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, who has been an outspoken critic of lawmakers accepting meals and freebies from special interests, said it is more likely that the system was simply new and busy lawmakers didn't have time to figure out its details during their session.
Powell noted, for example, that he stayed in hotels a few nights toward the end of the session to save the long round-trip home to Heber City, but didn't file for reimbursement because "I didn't have time to figure out the new process."
Lodging • Records show that only one lawmaker living within 50 miles of the Capitol chose to spend every night of the Legislature in a hotel Rep. Dana Layton, R-Orem. She stayed at the Little America Hotel, the choice of most lawmakers far from home, which gives lawmakers a rate of $96 a night. That happens to be the exact amount for which they may be reimbursed.
"Some others are more motivated to drive because they have young children at home," Layton said. "I just decided to devote 100 percent of my time to the session. I went to every single social event, and I spent the extra time studying bills in my room instead of spending two hours a day on the road."
The first-term lawmaker said the difference between what the state spent on her lodging and what it would have paid her in mileage was about $20 a day (she said she lives 48.5 miles from the Capitol).
Overall, the Legislature paid $79,000 in mileage reimbursements during its 45-day general session, an average of $760 for each lawmaker.
Transparent • Most lawmakers praise the new system as more fair and transparent especially those who declined the old allowances to avoid criticism.
Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, was one of two House members who refused both the old lodging and meal allowances. She notes she is the member "who probably lives the closest to the Capitol" and that taking lodging reimbursement would be silly and look bad. "I'm pleased we are finally using normally accepted business practices" for reimbursements, she said.
The other House member who refused the allowances was Minority Leader Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake City. She says she stopped accepting them after she was asked at a community meeting if lawmakers were paid for lodging and meals they don't actually use. "This change has been in the works for a while," she said. "We had a new crop of legislators this year who finally thought the change made sense."
Powell adds the change came probably because several members "had to take lumps in the press or especially from their campaign opponents" for taking money for lodging and meals not actually used.
Weiler, who also had refused the allowances, said, "I understood it was part of compensation package, but it didn't seem right to me, as a servant of the people, to be taking money for a hotel where I wasn't staying. I live nine miles from the Capitol. I'm glad the change was made."
Legislature's salary changes
Old rule • Lawmakers received about $16,380 a year, divided roughly in thirds for salary, lodging and meals. They did not need to spend allowances on actual hotels or food and could pocket it.
New rule • They receive a base salary of $16,380. They may be reimbursed beyond that for actual lodging and meal costs if they turn in receipts.
Difference • Under the old rule during the first week of this year's session, 73 of 75 House members accepted lodging allowance of $96 a night. After change, only 18 members sought lodging reimbursements.