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Reform needed in state per diem system

“A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work.”

That motto of the American Federation of Labor has been at the heart of America’s labor movement for generations.

It is the unspoken social contract that is fundamental to any agreement between employer and employee. In Wisconsin, where people still take pride in the wellearned reputation for having a strong work ethic, the phrase resonates strongly. Employers, and fellow workers, have little patience for layabouts, goldbrickers and others who game the system to do as little work as possible especially when there is a job to be done.

This is why it was especially disheartening to see recent reports that Wisconsin legislators received $555,000 in per diems in 2020 when the legislature spent most of the year sitting on its hands doing nothing. Unlike other states where legislatures were involved in actively helping to manage response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Wisconsin’s legislature went into stealth mode, only emerging for leadership to issue statements complaining about how the Evers’ administration handled things.

In Wisconsin, being a legislator is considered a fulltime job with an annual salary of about $53,000. This is just the base salary. State senators receive up to $115 and Assembly members receive up to $162 each day they show up at their offices. By comparison, the average worker in Wisconsin earns about $37,371 a year, and is not paid extra for simply reporting to their workplace.

The per diem system was set up as a way to help cover the real expenses of legislators from around the state as they have to travel to Madison to conduct government business.

Unfortunately, the system is ripe for abuse, with some like now-retired Sen. Fred Risser (D-Madison) who lives across the street from the state capital, drawing $12,000 for 240 days. Risser was one of four legislators to collect more than $10,000 in per diems, the others were former Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R - Juneau), Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley (D-Mason) and Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D - Middleton). With the exception of Bewley who represents far northwestern Wisconsin, the other top per diem recipients each have under an hour’s drive to Madison.

Legislators should be held to the same standard as all other workers and given a fair wage for the work they do. While those traveling from outside easy commute distance should be compensated for additional expenses, this could be better done through itemized expenses or increasing the base wages to take an average of these actual expenses.

While there are many in the legislature who work hard for their constituents, others are less noble in their goals. The per diem process needs to be reformed to save taxpayers from those who would see to take advantage of the system.