A few days after Washington lawmakers approved a budget deal to lower state spending last year, small-government advocate 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.
Among those with dry cleaning billed to the state were Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, Rep. David Taylor, R-Moxee, Sen. Janea Holmquist Newbry, R-Moses Lake, and former Rep. Bill Hinkle, R-Cle Elum.
King billed $511 in dry-cleaning costs to his legislative expense account since 2011. In that same time span, Taylor was reimbursed $246. Hinkle was reimbursed $234.26 and Holmquist Newbry, who did not respond to calls, was reimbursed $28.
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.
King said the Senate’s dress code requires him to wear a suit and dress shirt every day during the session. He said he doesn’t see a problem utilizing the reimbursements since it’s clearly granted under the law.
“We were told (by state officials) it was a legitimate expense,” King said.
Hinkle, who retired from the Legislature last year to become director of the Rental Housing Association of Puget Sound, said the issue was a case of reporters raising “stupid questions.”
“All I know is there are a lot of expenses and a lot of costs when you come into the office,” Hinkle said.
Hinkle said he doesn’t think the Legislature makes too many exceptions for reimbursements, but wouldn’t comment on the merit of other legislators’ large expenditures on office decorations and other items.
Taylor defended his dry cleaning reimbursements as necessary to carry out his duties. He said dry cleaning during the session is paid for out of his per diem accounts, but the reimbursements reported by the Associated Press came out of his legislative expense account because he received the services while the Legislature wasn’t in session.
Taylor said lawmakers move around their district and the state for public meetings, events and official business all year. Lawmakers are considered part-time officials and make about $42,000 annually, but Taylor said the reality is they need to be reimbursed for such expenses or the job itself could put them in debt.
“It’s up to the individual legislators to determine what’s appropriate,” Taylor said.
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 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 in artwork for his office last March, 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.
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.
• Yakima Herald-Republic reporter Mike Faulk contributed to this report. He can be reached at 509-577-7675 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Mike_Faulk.