BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Bipartisan legislation proposes that North Dakota taxpayers pick up the tab for lawmakers’ meals since dinners paid for by lobbyists and interest groups are now banned under voter-approved ethics rules.
Republican GOP Rep. Keith Kempenich is sponsoring HB1424 that would allow lawmakers who live outside Bismarck to claim reimbursement for meals. The bill has an estimated two-year cost of more than $424,000, or about $3,340 for each of the 127 qualified lawmakers during the maximum 80-day session.
Kempenich said Wednesday that the bill was inspired by the measure that voters approved in 2018 that amended the North Dakota Constitution to include a sweeping government ethics overhaul. Most Republicans opposed the measure that was aimed at adding transparency and accountability to government.
The Bowman rancher pushed a similar bill two years ago, while the ethics rules were being crafted and some meals were still being provided. No hearing has been scheduled for the new bill.
Kempenich, who has been in the House since 1993, said dinners funded by lobbyists and other groups had gone from “steak and lobster to finger food” during that time. Lawmakers used to joke about the weight they packed on during a session, but this session, he said, the freebie food is nonexistent.
One former lawmaker testified last session that the removal of the lobbyist meals perk was forcing him to develop unhealthy eating habits, including dipping into candy dishes on his colleagues’ desks. Kempenich said he doesn’t expect to gain any extra pounds this session since he now typically eats a can of spaghetti for dinner that costs $1 and he keeps canned food in his desk for lunches.
Lawmakers are paid $518 a month and $186 a day during the session. They also receive a housing allowance during the session of more than $1,800 a month and are included on the state-funded employee health plan worth about $1,425 monthly.
“We are a citizen legislature,” said Kempenich, whose home is about 200 miles from Bismarck. “It shouldn’t have to cost us money to be here.”
Kempenich’s bill failed in the House two years ago, but he said his fellow lawmakers may support his bill now that the free “feedbag” is no longer available.
GOP Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, of Dickinson, said he has no “appetite” for such legislation, especially at a time of declining state revenue.