Hawaii taxpayers write a check every year to neighbor island legislators for more than $400,000 to cover expenses the lawmakers don’t have to account for.
The 25 members who represent Kauai, Maui and the Big Island automatically receive $175 per day to be used primarily for food and lodging while the Legislature is in session from January to May. They are not required to keep receipts — it’s more of an honor system, similar to what some private companies do.
They can also request the same per diems during the interim, but are required to fill out a form explaining why the money is needed. Civil Beat inspected those expenses for the period ending June 30.
The $175 per day may sound insignificant to some, but it adds up. The roughly 105 days that neighbor island lawmakers get the automatic per diems during session comes out to about $270,900 for the 17 representatives and roughly $144,000 for the eight senators.
“Basically, the idea is that a member would have to maintain a residence on Oahu during the session, so they would need funding for every day” during session, House Chief Clerk Brian Takeshita said.
Some members may rent an apartment in Honolulu, for instance. Others may stay in a hotel and then go home on weekends.
Per diems are in addition to legislative salaries and travel allowances.
The per diem also covers incidental expenses, but not travel. There’s a separate fund for that.
Neighbor island lawmakers in the House get an additional $1,200 per month for travel to and from Oahu. Senators get one round-trip flight per week plus two additional round-trips per month during session and one additional round-trip per month for non-Oahu senators representing more than one island.
A non-Oahu Senate president such as Ron Kouchi, who represents Kauai and Niihau — is authorized eight round-trip flights per month.
The per diem also comes on top of their $59,000 annual salaries and $13,000 legislative allowances. Lawmakers have to account for how they use their allowances, which can be for such expenses as office furniture, staff meals and mailing newsletters to constituents.
“Per diem expenditures are not itemized like legislative allowance — members get the $175 per overnight, and they are not required to submit substantiation for what they spend it on,” Takeshita said. “This is a common practice among both government and private sector organizations when employees travel.”
Most neighbor island lawmakers received $18,375 for the 105 days between the start of the legislative session and sine die. Some received slightly less because there’s a five-day recess during session in which some lawmakers took the per diem and others did not.
Then there are the additional per diems they can request between sessions. Rep. Kaniela Ing has requested interim per diems far more than his neighbor island colleagues. He asked for it 25 times from the end of session May 7 through June 30, for a total of $4,375.
That’s more than his fellow Maui lawmakers. House Speaker Joe Souki took per diems 10 times during the same period and Reps. Angus McKelvey and Justin Woodson took them just twice.
Ing could not be reached for comment Friday or Monday.
A review of Ing’s interim per diem authorization forms shows he requested the funds when he was on Oahu for a staff mahalo lunch, strategic meetings for next session and attending the University of Hawaii law school graduation, and accomplishing work at his Capitol office such as responding to constituent emails and phone calls, preparing for a town hall meeting in Kihei and working on an end-of-session mailer to constituents, among other reasons.
Ing’s explanations on his official request forms were more detailed than those of his colleagues.
Souki, for instance, routinely says on his forms that the purpose is “legislative business, appointments, meet with staff, office mail.” Only one of his requests to take a per diem included additional information. That was in early May when he noted that the money was for a Military Appreciation Month celebration and a meeting with the Iao Middle School band.
Other lawmakers rarely if ever use their per diems during interims.
Kauai Reps. Jimmy Tokioka, Derek Kawakami and Dee Morikawa didn’t use theirs once from the end of session and June 30. Neither did Big Island Rep. Richard Creagan.
“Just because we have the ability to use it doesn’t mean we should,” Tokioka said.
He was on Oahu on Friday to help get his new office manager set up, but said he wasn’t going to ask for the $175 he could get for the visit.
Tokioka said he mostly uses the per diem during session to cover meals and hotel stays. Some years he said he’s been lucky enough to find a furnished apartment with a six-month lease, which cuts down on the cost.
“Sometimes when we have caucuses there’s a need to get reimbursed,” he said. “But I don’t even look at what the other guys do. I just try to save the state as much money as I can.”