Michael Kinsley's famous quote about the scandal in politics being more about what's legal than what is illegal perfectly captures our issue with the dubiously defined rules and regulations over extra pay for legislative leadership.
John Morse was able to sweep up nearly $40,000 in untaxable taxpayer cash and get away with it because the current rules make it impossible to determine the legitimacy of his requests. Common sense would tell you that his actions were the result of poor judgment and a misunderstood sense of per diem, but unfortunately common sense is often in short supply in politics.
The IRS is very clear on per diem being related directly, and only, to personal costs associated with business travel away from home. Yet Morse treated his per diem claims as extra compensation for his extra work.
We don't deny that Morse worked hard. Most legislators work hard, but most legislators didn't pocket more than double their salary from legal loopholes in the per diem statute. We're sure the legislators who didn't fleece taxpayers for all they could grab did not appreciate Morse's defense that he deserved all that extra cash because he worked harder than they did.
So to stop this from happening a third time, we propose two solutions to solve this problem:
1. Clarify the Legitimate Purposes for Per Diem: Per diem is not compensation, by definition, and the Legislature needs to modify existing statutes to make this clear to lawmakers. If a lawmaker must travel from their home to the Capitol or to other business pertaining to the General Assembly, then it's only fair that their personal expenses (lodging, food, incidentals) be covered. In the real world to claim per diem from your company, citizens have to provide copious amounts of documentation and receipts. It's only fair that politicians are held to the same standard as the people who pay their salaries.
So we suggest the Legislature adopt rules that define per diem as directly related to travel and thus requires lawmakers to detail their travel to claim per diem. We're not saying that rules should be adopted giving an exact number of hours or tasks that must be performed, but general guidelines should be put in place. For example, if a member of leadership has a breakfast meeting with a constituent group and then golfs the rest of the day, taking $99 is not justified. But if they must spend a good portion of their day away from home attending committee hearings or meetings, and eat meals out or stay in a hotel, then per diem is justified.
If travel costs are not incurred, then reimbursement should not take place. That's how it works everywhere but the Legislature.
The ethics committee has suggested modifying current statutes to clarify that the leadership per diem only be claimable for work related to leadership responsibilities. We agree. Non-leadership legislators can't claim per diem for their regular constituent work, so why should members of leadership?
2. Require More Documentation/Explanation: The ethics complaint against Morse failed in large part because the Colorado Government Accountability Project (CGAP) was unable to prove that there were days when Morse didn't do any work. Stephanie Cegielski of CGAP was attacked for only using Morse's publicly available calendar, which is completely unfair as it's the only information available.
As Senator Mitchell pointed out, if Cegielski had a dossier and details on what Morse was doing every day that would be creepy. We shouldn't put the onus on citizens to stalk legislators, but instead the burden should be on the lawmaker to document or explain the purpose for taking the per diem payment.
Morse used the incredibly vague “constituent work” excuse for virtually every per diem request in 2009. Other lawmakers were much more detailed and forthcoming with their justifications, but it's naive to expect politicians to be forthcoming without forcing them.
We suggest that the Legislature modify the per diem statute and per diem forms to require legislators to give detailed explanations of what they were doing. After all, they are doing the people's work on the people's dime, so the people should have a right to know what work that is.
This is not asking too much as the Denver Post points out in their editorial:
There shouldn't be room for question. Other states require lawmakers to file written vouchers describing their work activities in order to claim per diems. Colorado's system, like all others in government, should contain some checks and balances.
Don't Kick the Can Down the Road…Again
The saying “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me” comes to mind when looking at the legislative inaction on this issue. The ethics committee that investigated Joe Stengel recommended the Legislature change the rules to avoid future issues, but nothing happened.
The Legislature can't let this happen again. It needs to act and resolve this festering wound on the credibility of the General Assembly.