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No free lunch: North Dakota lawmakers defeat meal reimbursement bill

“The Pioneer Family” statue seen in front of the North Dakota State Capitol on July 14, 2016, in Bismarck. Forum file photo

BISMARCK -- North Dakota House lawmakers overwhelmingly rejected a bill allowing them to claim meal reimbursement while they're in session Thursday, Jan. 31.

House Bill 1505 would have permitted lawmakers who live outside of Bismarck to claim taxpayer-funded reimbursement for meals during regular, organizational and special sessions. It came with a two-year price tag of nearly $401,500.

House lawmakers defeated the bipartisan proposal in a 85-6 vote, with several bill co-sponsors opposing it.

Legislators already receive a meal expense of up to $35 per day during interim study periods between biennial sessions, and the bill would have provided the same rate for the other legislative meetings. The bill's actual cost would have depended on how many meals lawmakers claimed.

Grand Forks Democratic Rep. Mary Adams said lawmakers shouldn't vote for added meal reimbursements while some families struggle to make ends meet.

Rep. Aaron McWilliams, R-Hillsboro, said he hated the bill but would vote for it. He said people have to choose between their careers and serving in the Legislature, which comes with travel and other expenses.

"We don't get a lot," he said.

Lawmakers are paid $495 monthly plus $177 daily during the session and interim meetings, but legislative leaders receive an extra $355 monthly. Legislators receive a lodging expense during the session and the interim, and most are covered by the state's generous health insurance policy.

The proposal came after efforts to slim state government in recent years, including through employee buyouts.

The bill's primary sponsor, Republican Rep. Keith Kempenich of Bowman, previously said the bill was partly a response to new constitutional ethics rules voters passed through Measure 1, which prompted industry groups to rethink legislative receptions and socials. He acknowledged voting for the added benefit might make lawmakers "uncomfortable" but said it wasn't "a big deal."

"It shouldn't just be people of means" who are able to serve in the Legislature, Kempenich said.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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