MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin state lawmakers claimed more than $555,000 in daily expense reimbursements in 2020 even though they never convened for a floor session during the last eight months of a year marked by the coronavirus pandemic, records released Tuesday show.
Legislators claimed $555,159 in expenses, known as per diems, according to the records from the Senate and Assembly chief clerk's offices. Lawmakers can claim such payments for daily expenses they accrue for work done in Madison. The payments are in addition to their $53,000 annual salaries. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel first reported the tallies.
The Legislature adjourned its two-year session in March 2020, which is typical in election years. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic tightened its grip, the Legislature came back in April to pass a COVID-19 relief bill. Republicans who control both houses refused to convene again last year, drawing the ire of Democrats who railed that the GOP needed to do more to address the pandemic.
The money lawmakers collected was about 55% less than the $1.25 million they claimed in 2019 and about 30% less than the nearly $800,000 they claimed in 2018, the last year the Legislature adjourned early to allow members to campaign.
Four lawmakers claimed more than $10,000 in per diems, including former Senate Republican Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, who is now in Congress; Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley; former Sen. Fred Risser; and Sen. Jon Erpenbach. Risser and Erpenbach are Democrats.
Fittzgerald claimed $19,550, the most of any lawmaker in either house, for 170 days of work in Madison. He was the top per diem recipient in 2019 as well, collecting $20,125 for 175 days. His spokeswoman, Kelli Liegel, didn't immediately respond to a message.
Fitzgerald's counterpart in the Assembly, Speaker Robin Vos, collected $4,561 for just 49 days in Madison in 2020.
Risser, who lives across the street from the Capitol, collected $12,000 for 240 days, by far the most days claimed of any lawmaker. He did not seek reelection in November.
Risser said he spent most of his legislative work days at home dealing with "thousands" of constituents who lost their jobs during the pandemic and couldn't navigate the state Department of Workforce Development's system to claim benefits. The agency has been trying to dig out from a backlog of claims since the pandemic began.
"I was busier this time, this year, than if I'd been at the Capitol," Risser said. "The virus had caused a lot of problems with the constituency."
Risser said he confirmed with the Senate chief clerk's office that he could claim a per diem if he took their calls in Madison. Asked for confirmation, Senate Chief Clerk Michael Queensland pointed to a Senate policy adopted in January 2019 that allows senators to claim per diems for days spent in Madison on state business. He said Risser's interpretation is correct.
Bewley's spokeswoman, Leslie Westmont, said Bewley had to spend time changing offices after she was named minority leader and Bewley has poor internet coverage at her home in Mason, in far northern Wisconsin, and had to travel to Madison to participate in meetings from her Capitol office.
Erpenbach resides in West Point, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) north of Madison. The $12,305 he collected for 107 days in Madison was less than the $15,180 he got for 142 days in 2019 but still enough to place him second behind Fitzgerald last year.
He said it's simply easier to work in his Capitol office where information is at his fingertips. But he said he didn't claim a per diem for every visit.
"When you look at my per diem record compared to the past, I don't think there's a significant number of changes," he said.
Democratic Rep. Jimmy Anderson of Fitchburg, a Madison suburb, was the only lawmaker in either house who didn't claim any per diems. Anderson, a quadriplegic, said he's especially susceptible to COVID-19 and has been sheltering in place since the pandemic began. He said it doesn't look good for other legislators to collect thousands in per diems when they've done so little to pass laws dealing with the disease.
"If they're actually doing the work, I have no qualms," Anderson said. "But I think we should have been doing a lot more as a legislature."