By DALE WETZEL (AP)† as found in www.BismarckTribune.com
Along with considering large spending increases for state programs, North Dakota lawmakers are considering whether to give themselves a future raise and boost their session housing allowance from $900 to $1,000.
Hotel executives backed the idea Friday at a Senate Government and Veterans Affairs Committee hearing, saying North Dakota lawmakers' lodging rate has not been increased in four years, while their own expenses have been rising.
The requested $100 monthly housing boost, an 11 percent increase, is "significantly less than increases that we have seen in our actual expenses, and is even less than inflation," said Mike Motschenbacher, a manager at Bismarck's Expressway Inn and Suites. "We think it is fair."
The average daily rate his hotel gets for renting rooms has risen 24.5 percent during the same period, Motschenbacher said.
Lawmakers are now reimbursed up to $900 monthly for their housing expenses. They are paid only what they spend. Bismarck and Mandan motels watch the rate closely, and typically use it to set a minimum price for putting up lawmakers during legislative sessions, which last from early January until mid- to late April 1.
The legislation includes proposals to increase legislators' session pay and monthly salaries by about 4 percent. Session pay would rise from $945 to $980 a week, while lawmakers' monthly salaries would increase from $378 to $393.
If approved, the pay increases would take effect July 1. The higher housing allowance will be retroactive to Jan. 1, if the legislation gets two-thirds support in the North Dakota House and Senate.
The bill also raises lodging expenses and travel reimbursements for state employees.
North Dakota government pays motels up to $55 a night, not including tax, when state employees travel within the state. The legislation would increase the "state rate" cap to $60 a night.
Mileage reimbursements for state employees who use their own vehicles for job-related travel would be pegged at the same rate used by the federal General Services Administration, which is now 55 cents a mile. The state reimbursement rate now is 45 cents.
Workers often use state vehicles for job-related travel, and no mileage reimbursement is paid in those circumstances.
The changes affecting legislators and state workers will mean almost $1.2 million in added spending for the 2009-11 budget period, according to the state Office of Management and Budget and the Legislative Council, which is the Legislature's research arm.
Proposals to boost legislative pay often have been coupled with increases in lawmakers' housing allowances, which marshals support from the local hospitality industry for the entire package.
Bill Shalhoob, the managing partner of Bismarck's Select Inn, said the occupancy rate of motel rooms in Bismarck and Mandan was almost 71 percent last year, with occupied rooms bringing in an average of $1,899 over 30 days.
The current legislative housing allowance is not even half that, Shalhoob said. The daily rate charged to legislators "is by far the lowest rate that we have," he said.
After listening to Motschenbacher and Shalhoob, Sen. Robert Horne, D-Minot, remarked that he felt "grateful that you took me in, and it kind of makes me feel guilty for not paying my fair share."
Shalhoob replied that legislators provide four months of steady business during wintertime when demand is less brisk.
"Don't feel like we're so magnanimous," Shalhoob said. "It is winter. If it was summer, they'd probably throw you out in the street."
The bill is SB2064.