During the recent legislative session, Oregon lawmakers received $123 a day from the taxpayers to cover the expenses of meeting in Salem.
But several legislators instead paid for many of their expenses out of their campaign funds, allowing them to pocket the per diem, which is tax-free if they live more than 50 miles from the Capitol.
For example, Rep. Deborah Boone of Cannon Beach used campaign money to pick up the tab for nearly $200 in dry cleaning bills. Sen. Herman Baertschiger of Grants Pass spent $3,740 in campaign money for hotel bills. And Sen. Alan Olsen dipped into his campaign fund to collect more than $5,400 in mileage for the daily 70-mile round trip commute between his Canby home and the Capitol.
The use of campaign funds to cover the personal expenses of serving in a legislative session is legal, according to election officials. But it has been controversial for several years, with many legislators avoiding the practice.
I dont think the public looks kindly on us collecting a bunch of campaign cash and spending it on personal expenses, said Sen. Rod Monroe, D-Portland. Thats why we get a per diem.
A 2006 public commission charged with improving the operations of the Legislature recommended banning the practice. Monroe tried to get it included in a 2007 ethics bill that dealt with several of the commissions recommendations. But he said he couldnt get much support for a ban.
In 2012, then-Rep. Mike Schaufler, D-Happy Valley, was criticized in a heated primary race for using his campaign fund to pay living expenses in Salem, including his tab at a local tavern. Monroe said he thinks that was one of the reasons Schaufler was defeated by retired teacher Jeff Reardon.
This year, about a dozen legislators out of the 90 total spent at least $2,000 in campaign funds reimbursing themselves for lodging and mileage during the session, according to disclosure reports filed with the secretary of state.
Some lawmakers say theyre just trying to minimize their loss of income from serving in the Legislature.
I didnt realize what kind of hardship it was going to be on me financially to be a legislator, said Olsen, a Republican, who added that the job is 24/7 and we dont treat it that way salary-wise.
Olsen said his $21,612-a-year legislative pay and the per diem which totaled nearly $20,000 for the just-concluded session doesnt come near to making up the money hes lost because he had to temporarily close his one-man general contracting business.
Baertschiger, a Republican who runs a logging and fire fighting business, said he also counts on using much of the per diem to help even out the costs of serving in the Legislature.
Even after the session ends, he said, hes being pulled away from his work to meet with constituents, attend public meetings and the like.
In addition to spending $199 for dry cleaning out of her campaign fund, Boone, a Democrat, also tapped campaign cash for $749 in gas and $1,787 in lodging. She did not respond to several calls to her home for comment.
Oregon law prohibits public officials from converting campaign funds to personal use but they can use them to defray any expenses incurred as a result of their official duties.
As a result, the state Elections Division has advised legislators they can spend campaign money on mileage, lodging and other expenses they wouldnt have if they didnt serve in the Legislature.
Jennifer Hertel, a compliance officer for the elections division, said legislators are pretty much on the honor system in following those guidelines. She adds, however, that legislators could be required to defend how theyve used their campaign funds if election officials receive a complaint.
For example, Hertel said, legislators who use their campaign funds to pay their cell phone expenses should be prepared to show that the money isnt being used to cover the cost of making personal calls.
In the absence of specific guidelines, several legislators say they have come to rely on their own sense of what is right and wrong.
I think you have to be able to look your constituents in the eye and also look your campaign donors in the eye and say, This is how Im using the funds, said Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland.
He said he claims mileage during the session only when hes traveling to an event outside of Salem related to politics or the Legislature, and not on travel back and forth from his district.
Mileage is a particularly complicated issue because legislators can claim mileage reimbursement from the state for official business during the interim. Once the session starts, however, they lose that reimbursement but they also start picking up a $123 per diem that lasts every day of the session, including on weekends.
Sen. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, got in hot water during a 2006 City Council race which she lost when it was discovered she was charging her campaign for mileage on top of gas and insurance. She now said she misunderstood the rules and now collects only mileage reimbursements.
Im not independently wealthy, she said, so when there are legitimate expenses I need to put in for them.
Rep. Wally Hicks, R-Grants Pass, said he only charges mileage to his campaign if he returns to his district for a political or legislative purpose.
Freshman Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, started out charging his campaign lodging expenses in Salem, but said he stopped after a few weeks when he realized that the per diem could cover these charges. He also charged just over $5,000 to his campaign fund for mileage during the session but said he did not claim mileage if he was returning home from Salem purely for personal reasons.
Several legislators acknowledge that the $123 per diem covered their actual expenses of traveling and of living in Salem during the session. But they say they saw it as a needed supplement to their legislative pay.
Our pay is so little, said Rep. Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, explaining that the $3,000 she collected in campaign funds for mileage and lodging helps me and my family do this job.