Former state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, was one of nine state lawmakers who collected more than $10,000 in expense payments in 2018.
Vinehout, who didn’t seek re-election last year because she ran for governor, ranked No. 2 among all legislators with $12,650 in so-called per diem payments. Topping the list was Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, who received $14,960, according to reports released by the Assembly and Senate chief clerks.
Overall, legislators collected nearly $800,000 in daily expense reimbursements last year, down from $1.3 million in 2017, a budget-writing year when lawmakers spent more time in the Capitol than they did last year. Per diem amounts are in addition to legislators’ $53,000 annual salary.
Vinehout, who ranked fourth among senators by claiming per diems for 110 days, said her legislative and committee work kept her busy in Madison throughout the year and her expense payments reflected her desire to dive deep into issues by meeting with people and going beyond just relying on written reports.
As a legislator, she said, “If I’m staying on my beautiful farm in Alma and not figuring out what’s going on with the state budget, I’m not doing my job.”
Among west-central Wisconsin representatives, six others collected more than the $6,078 average for all 132 lawmakers. Rep. James “Jimmy Boy” Edming, R-Glen Flora, led the way with $7,301, followed by Rep. Rob Summerfield, R-Bloomer, with $6,751, Rep. Warren Petryk, R-town of Pleasant Valley, with $6,594, and Rep. Kathy Bernier, R-Lake Hallie, with $6,516.
Bernier, who claimed expense payments for 53 days, said she had a busy year serving on six committees, including three that dealt with the bulk of the bills considered by the Assembly.
“It’s pretty simple for me. I go down there (to Madison) when I need to be there, and I don’t go when I don’t need to be there,” Bernier said, adding that outstate lawmakers are more likely to have higher lodging expenses than legislators from southeastern Wisconsin.
Petryk said the payments simply reflect the number of days he was in Madison meeting with people and attending Assembly floor sessions and committee meetings.
At the bottom of the list were two former legislators who didn’t seek re-election — Sen. Terry Moulton, R-town of Seymour, with $1,700, and Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire, with $3,140 — and Rep. Shannon Zimmerman, R-River Falls, with $2,826.
Zimmerman claimed expense payments for only 22 days, the third lowest total in the Assembly, although he said that amount is likely to rise this year with his responsibilities as a member of the Legislature’s budget-writing Joint Finance Committee.
“I deliberately try to remain in my district as much as humanly possible. That’s where I do my best work,” Zimmerman said, adding that he is a firm believer in the idea of citizen legislators.
Wachs, who also ran for governor last year, said he was careful not to charge for nights that he was in Madison doing more than legislative business. He claimed per diem payments for only 25 days and pointed out that he conducted many meetings with constituents at his law office in Eau Claire.
“Why make people drive all the way to Madison to meet with their legislator,” he said.
Jordan Krieger, a spokesperson for Sen. Patty Schachtner, D-Somerset, who claimed $6,440 in expenses, pointed out that Schachtner’s total would have been below average if she hadn’t served on the Legislative Council Study Committee on Dyslexia in the summer.
Krieger noted that additional per diem costs were generated by the extraordinary session days called outside of the regular legislative calendar, such as the December lame-duck session in which Republican legislators stripped powers away from the then-incoming governor and attorney general.
The other current and former legislators from west-central Wisconsin could not be reached for comment Tuesday.