State tax dollars go to dry cleaning, art

OLYMPIA — A few days after Washington lawmakers approved a budget deal to lower state spending last year, small-government Rep. Gary Alexander got $40.60 worth of dry cleaning done.

Then he made sure taxpayers paid the bill.

Alexander, the Republican budget writer in the state House, billed more than $500 worth of dry-cleaning fees to the state over the past two years, according to an Associated Press analysis of thousands of expense reimbursements. He wasn’t alone: Seven Democrats and 12 Republicans in the Legislature requested and received compensation totaling more than $5,600 for dry cleaning since the start of 2011.

Lawmakers are able to get taxpayer-covered compensation for what the Legislature deems legitimate business expenses tied to the job. That includes common costs of being a lawmaker, such as travel around the district to meet with constituents, parking fees for meetings, office supplies and rent for district offices.

It also includes a variety of expenses with less-explicit benefits for taxpayers, including iPhones, picture frames, artwork, expenses for meetings with lobbyists and dues to professional organizations like the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council.

Alexander said he only submits dry cleaning receipts that are above and beyond the expenses he has outside of his legislative work. He said the job, especially when the Legislature is meeting, requires him to use a lot more dress shirts and sport coats.

“I don’t think that’s an unreasonable expense to be reimbursed for,” Alexander said.

After an AP reporter questioned him about how it aligns with a limited-government message, Alexander said he would explore ways to keep his expenses down.

“I’m always looking for ways that we can do it by example,” said Alexander, who is from Olympia.

Stephen Ellis, vice president of the group Taxpayers for Common Sense, said the idea that lawmakers should spend public money to decorate their office or keep their clothes clean is beyond the pale. He said that while the amount of money may be small in comparison to the budget at large, the expenses offer a chance for taxpayers to get a glimpse at how lawmakers operate.

“We see it as a lens into how they approach the budget,” Ellis said. “If they’re profligate with their own spending in offices, it stands to reason that they’re not going to be too frugal with the state or the federal budget.”

Democratic Sen. Rodney Tom, who lives in the wealthy enclave of Medina and recently built a coalition with Republicans to install himself as majority leader, purchased various books from Amazon.com and got reimbursement for a Bose headset that cost $164.20. Senate Democratic Leader Ed Murray got coverage for his home Internet ($50 per month) and home office telephone ($50 per month), in addition to the cellphone that he and many other lawmakers expense.

House Republican Leader Richard DeBolt, of Chehalis, meanwhile, filed for only about $100 in total expenses over two years — all tied to travel. House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, used his account mostly to expense costs related to his district office.

Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland, expensed more than $600 in membership dues for business organizations in the Tri Cities. Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, purchased $383.25 in artwork for his office in March of last year, also when lawmakers were struggling to balance the budget.

Pederson said the art — a painting of the Montlake Bridge done by a Seattle artist — was like other furniture that lawmakers need to make their offices comfortable and inviting. He noted that he doesn’t typically use his full allotment for reimbursable expenses, which has been $6,500 in recent years.

Murray, the top Democrat in the state Senate, said he uses his own money to cover a number of expenses related to his legislative work. He bemoaned the focus on reimbursements.

“It’s why we have trouble recruiting candidates who aren’t rich, old and retired,” said Murray, who is from Seattle.

Haler said he wouldn’t be part of the business organization if it wasn’t for his work in the Legislature. Tom said his expenses were all important to his legislative work, such as books on policy and a headset for phone conversations.

Each lawmaker typically totals between $10,000 and $25,000 in expenses each year, including per diems during the session, postage, printing, travel and the more generic category of office expenses. Legislators earn a salary of between about $42,000 and $50,000, and many maintain external jobs.

Washington lawmakers are currently looking to fill a roughly $1 billion shortfall and looking to add another $1 billion to education in the coming legislative session.

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