Montana state capitol Helena
Credit: Eliza Wiley / MTFP

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The House gave preliminary approval on Tuesday to a bill that would increase per diem rates for the lodging and meals of legislators during the session, a biennial hot potato that often sees lawmakers voting against their interest in order to avoid the thorny optics of supporting a greater payout for their time in Helena. 

House Bill 28, sponsored by Rep. Rhonda Knudsen, R-Culbertson, passed the House on second reading 67-32. It needs to pass one more House vote before heading to the Senate.

The bill would increase legislative per diem payments to the federal per diem rate set for Helena: $107 a day for lodging and $64 a day for meals and incidental expenses. That totals $171 a day, “legitimate numbers” that “accurately reflect the cost of living in Helena,” Knudsen said before the vote, citing skyrocketing rental, lodging and grocery costs in the state capital. 

She said she knows many lawmakers don’t feel they need more money. If that’s the case, she said, they can donate their reimbursement or serve without compensation. 

“That’s your decision,” she said. “But please do not make that decision for anyone else. Before you decide to vote for this bill, I would urge you to look around the chamber. Do you know who needs a cost-of-living increase to stay in Helena?”

Under current law, legislators earn $104 a day during the 2023 legislative session, plus about $132 in per diem payments. The per diem rate for a given session is based on the average of the rates in the four states surrounding Montana or a 5% increase from the previous session, whichever is less. Knudsen’s bill would not increase lawmakers’ daily salaries, just their per diem payments. 

Those sums, supporters of the bill said, are simply not enough to keep up with the rising cost of living in Helena — let alone to pay for lawmakers’ housing both in Helena and in their districts, for gas and for family expenses like childrens’ orthodontia or schooling, especially when many have to leave their jobs to serve in the Legislature. 

That dynamic narrows the pool of those who can afford to serve in the Legislature, said Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, the chair of the House Appropriations Committee. 

“Over the years I’ve heard some variation of the conversation — over the last two decades any number of times — and to be honest I’ve mostly avoided it, because you know I didn’t like the optics,” Jones said on the floor. “I didn’t like us being accused of in some way voting for an increase. So I avoided it. But I look in the mirror, and I have the economic resources, as do a number of us, that it just really didn’t matter that much to me. But when I look around the room, there are others that aren’t in that situation. 

“This Legislature, this group of people here, should be reflective of a body, the state as a whole.” 

One opponent of the bill, Billings Rep. Terry Moore, a Republican, said he agreed with the spirit of the proposal but worried that it may go against a provision in the Montana Constitution that says “no Legislature may fix its own compensation.” 

Lawmakers, he suggested, might consider amending the language to enact the per diem increase at the beginning of the 2025 session to avoid that possible conflict. 

“We definitely need to address this, but it needs to be effective at the next legislative session to honor our Constitution,” he said. 

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Raised in Arizona, Arren is no stranger to the issues impacting Western states, having a keen interest in the politics of land, transportation and housing. Prior to moving to Montana, Arren was a statehouse reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times and covered agricultural and trade policy for Politico in Washington, D.C. In Montana, he has carved out a niche in shoe-leather heavy muckraking based on public documents and deep sourcing that keeps elected officials uncomfortable and the public better informed.