Gov. candidates bill taxpayers $23,000 in expensesby Tom Scheck, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — The state lawmakers who are running for governor have collected a total of nearly $23,000 in legislative expense payments since early June.
Lawmakers are allowed to claim expenses when the Legislature isn't in session, but even some of the candidates say they're concerned about appearances.
Minnesota Public Radio didn't come up with the idea of examining the expense reports of every state lawmaker who is running for governor; it was one of the candidates, Republican Rep. Marty Seifert of Marshall.
Seifert raised the issue last week at a St. Paul news conference. He said he was concerned that some candidates may have used their legislative leadership positions to schedule visits around the state to gain publicity.
"I'm just throwing it out there as something that needs attention from people to get ahead of the curve, if you will," Seifert said.
So MPR News checked, and it turns out it was Marty Seifert who claimed more money for expenses over the last four months than any other House member running for governor. The only candidate for governor in the Legislature who claimed more than Seifert was DFL Sen. Tom Bakk.
Expense reports show that Seifert took $6,081 for travel, lodging and daily expense payments. There's nothing illegal about state lawmakers filing expense reports, but they could run the political risk of appearing to campaign on the public dime.
When asked about the figures, Seifert said the issue isn't that candidates for governor are taking expense payments, but that some in power have the right to call hearings and meetings and then claim expenses. Seifert stepped down from his position as House Minority Leader when he announced his campaign for governor.
"I live the farthest from the Capitol of a lot of these folks, but I don't have the ability to at will travel to Crookston, visit a college and do other things and sign a slip for myself," Seifert said.
Seifert singled out three DFL lawmakers over expense reports: House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, House Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee Chair Tom Rukavina, and House Health and Human Service Policy Committee Chair Paul Thissen.
Thissen scheduled one meeting on August 10, and took $40 in per diem -- the second least among the candidates. He also scheduled visits to nine hospitals in late June and early July, but his committee didn't allow lawmakers to claim per diem or mileage for the tours.
Rukavina, who claimed the third highest amount in expenses among the candidates for governor, held one committee hearing during the time period but also claimed mileage to visit colleges and universities in southeast Minnesota. He defended his tour and his decision to file expense reports.
"I got a $4 billion biannual budget," Rukavina said. "I have [to] do my job as a state legislator, and when I'm doing that job as a state legislator, I'm doing what the people elected me for; I can't do it for free. We don't get a lot of money in this process, and we have to get some reimbursements. Otherwise I'd be in the hole having this job."
For his part, Sen. Bakk said it isn't fair to compare the expense reports of rural and metro lawmakers. Bakk claimed $6,600 in expenses since June 2, for travel, per diem and lodging. But Bakk argued that the reports are skewed because rural lawmakers can claim lodging expenses and metro lawmakers can't.
Legislators are entitled to lodging expenses if their home is 50 miles or more from the state Capitol.
The metro candidate who claimed the highest amount of expenses is DFL House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher. She claimed about $2,300 in per diem and travel expenses and spoke at several DFL-heavy events like a union convention Rochester. Kelliher said she's careful about separating politics from her role as speaker.
"When I'm invited as Speaker of the House, I'm very clear about my role as Speaker of the House and I make sure that in my comments and commentary, I'm not talking about being a candidate for governor," Kelliher said.
One candidate for governor didn't claim any expenses since June, but it wasn't because he's taking a stance against the process. Republican Sen. David Hann of Eden Prairie said he didn't have a reason to claim expenses during the break but said it's possible that he could file expenses in the future.
- Morning Edition, 09/29/2009, 7:25 a.m.