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Legislators to pay more for housing

BISMARCK -- Hotel and motel owners who house North Dakota legislators here aren't going to settle for $650 a month anymore. A state advisory board told the Legislative Management Committee on Monday it will introduce a bill in the 2005 session to...

BISMARCK -- Hotel and motel owners who house North Dakota legislators here aren't going to settle for $650 a month anymore.

A state advisory board told the Legislative Management Committee on Monday it will introduce a bill in the 2005 session to raise the legislative housing allowance from $650 to $900 for hotels and $750 for apartments or rental houses.

Legislative Council Director John Olsrud told the committee he is receiving calls from lawmakers who can't find housing for next session, which begins Jan. 4.

"Motels in town have been talking to each other and pretty much agreed to $850," said Rep. Duane DeKrey, R-Pettibone.

"I think they're sending us a pretty strong message," said House Minority Leader Merle Boucher, D-Rolette. "They know we need a place to stay and can hold out for any amount of money."

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If the housing allowance law isn't changed to $900 and hoteliers all charge $850-$900, legislators would pay the $200-$250 a month difference out of their own pockets. Some 2003 legislators already paid out-of-pocket expenses at some inns that wouldn't settle for $650.

North Dakota legislators receive a salary of $125 per calendar day, $45 per calendar day for lodging up to $650 per month for those who live outside of Bismarck, and $250 per month reimbursement for additional expenses year-round, in session or not. Legislative leaders and committee chairmen receive additional pay.

It's been about 10 years since the housing rate was increased from $600 to $650.

"We want to be fair. If it's appropriate to be $800 or $900, then that's what we want to be at," said House Majority Leader Rick Berg, R-Fargo.

The raises in housing could cost the taxpayers as much as $120,000 more for the session. There are 141 legislators, with about 20 living in or near Bismarck-Mandan. For the remainder, $650 for four months is $314,600, while a $900 rate would total $435,600. In reality, the amount would be reduced by the number of legislators who rent apartments or homes of Bismarck snowbirds who leave town for the winter.

Rep. Mark Dosch, R-Bismarck, has experience from both perspectives. He runs the Expressway Inn and Expressway Suites in south Bismarck. He's looked at his costs and "for our hotels, we're going to be $900, which is $30 a day."

That is still substantially below corporate rates, he said. He limits his hotels to 20 lawmakers to leave room for convention-goers who want to meet in Bismarck during legislative years.

But legislators say there's more to it than the difference between the rate for regular guests and the legislative monthly rate. A guaranteed $22 a night for four months is still more income than an empty room at a time when hotels have little business.

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When he arrives back in town on a Sunday night during the session, "there might be five cars in the lot" at his hotel, said Rep. Elliot Glassheim, D-Grand Forks.

The Legislative Compensation Commission, which studies legislative pay and benefits, told the management committee Monday about its plan to introduce the housing allowance and an increase in mileage from 31 cents per mile to 37.5 cents per mile.

The commission is made up of ex-legislators.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Janell Cole at (701) 224-0830

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