Bill would allow North Dakota lawmakers to claim meal reimbursement during session

The North Dakota Capitol in Bismarck. Photo illustration by Troy Becker

BISMARCK — North Dakota lawmakers would be reimbursed by taxpayers for meals during the legislative session under a bipartisan bill that supporters said is partly a response to new state ethics rules.

House Bill 1505 comes with an estimated two-year price tag of nearly $401,500 and allows lawmakers to claim meal reimbursement for each day during organizational, special and regular legislative sessions.

Legislators already receive a meal expense of up to $35 per day during interim study periods between biennial sessions, and the bill would provide the same rate for the other legislative meetings. The bill's actual cost would depend on how many meals lawmakers claim.

The bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Keith Kempenich, R-Bowman, said lawmakers have discussed the idea in the past but it became more urgent after the passage of Measure 1. The measure added new anti-corruption language to the state constitution, including a ban on lobbyist gifts, prompting some industry groups to rethink legislative receptions and socials that included food and drinks.

“It’s not every night of the week, but there’s usually something going on where legislators have an opportunity to at least grab a quick bite,” Democratic Rep. Corey Mock, a bill co-sponsor, said Tuesday, Jan. 22.

The proposal comes a couple of years after lawmakers slashed general fund spending amid reduced tax revenue. State agencies have also offered employee buyouts in an effort to slim down.

Mock acknowledged the reimbursement proposal may attract criticism — some lawmakers have already shook their heads at the idea — but said people make sacrifices to serve in the Legislature by putting their careers on hold for four months every other year. He said the bill would help ensure people can hold office without additional financial stress.

“I don't believe that anybody should have to lose money if they're going to serve their constituents, their neighbors, in government,” Mock said. "Reimbursing basic expenses and providing ... a modest compensation for their time and efforts will really help people get involved in civics."

Lawmakers are paid $495 monthly plus $177 daily during the session and during interim meetings, but legislative leaders receive an extra $355 monthly. Legislators receive a lodging expense during the session and the interim.

Lawmakers meet in regular session for a maximum of 80 days every other year. They began the 2019 session earlier this month.

If passed, the meal reimbursement bill would kick in during the 2021 legislative session. The bill would only apply to the 127 legislators who live outside of Bismarck, said Allen Knudson, a legislative budget analyst.

A House committee is scheduled to hear the legislation Thursday afternoon.