$55,619 for Capitol Commute: GOP Primary Focuses on Nielsen’s Per Diem

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Although he owns and routinely stays at a home within easy commuting
distance of his Capitol office, Assemblyman Jim Nielsen has accepted at
least $55,619 since being elected in 2008 in room and board payments
originally intended to support lawmakers whose homes were so far away it
would be impractical for them to eat at their kitchen table and sleep
in their own beds each night.

Nielsen’s per diem payments have become an issue in the campaign for
the June 8 Republican primary. Nielsen’s opponent, Charlie Schaupp of
Esparto, says that it’s “absolute fraud” for Nielsen to take the cash
because he owns a home in Woodland, less than 30 miles from the Capitol.

But Nielsen defends taking the payments. He said like almost all
members of the state Assembly, he uses the cash to offset the cost of
paying for two homes, one inside the district and one close to

“Would it make sense to sell my home and rent an apartment?” he said.

Nielsen has owned a home in the Woodland area since the 1960s but
currently claims a double-wide trailer in Gerber as his primary

Nielsen said that when the Assembly is in session, he usually stays
in Woodland from Monday through Wednesday. He also said he stays in
Woodland longer when his duties as a member of the Assembly leadership
extend, sometimes through the weekend.

Nielsen said receiving per diem is an absolute necessity, given that
Gerber is two hours from Sacramento.

“My wife and I literally burn up I-5,” he said. “We’re usually waving
at each other going in the opposite direction.”

Like all members of the Assembly, Nielsen makes $95,291 a year. The
per diem payments are on top of that salary.

Schaupp isn’t alone in his criticism that Nielsen’s per diem payments
are bilking taxpayers.

“If, in fact, the assemblyman is living in the home he’s owned for a
long time and driving to the Capitol from that home, there is no reason
he should collect a penny’s worth of per diem,” said Doug Heller,
executive director of Consumer Watchdog, a political and corporate
accountability group. “Per diem is to cover legitimate needs of
officials who have to be away from home to do their work.”

Schaupp also turns to the payments to dredge up allegations that
Nielsen doesn’t actually live in the district he represents.

“It’s a Catch-22,” Schaupp said. “If Nielsen doesn’t take per diem,
he’s admitting essentially he lives in Woodland. And if he admits to
living in Woodland, he’s not qualified to live in the district.”

In the lead-up to the 2008 Republican primary, the California
attorney general’s office investigated Nielsen’s residency. Schaupp, one
of Nielsen’s opponents in that race, and others alleged Nielsen didn’t
actually live in the Gerber mobile home Nielsen claimed he had bought a
few months earlier from a family member.

The attorney general declined to prosecute, citing insufficient

Schaupp came in a distant second behind Nielsen in that
four-candidate race. Nielsen went on to easily win the general election.

Schaupp still maintains that Nielsen rarely if ever stays in Gerber.

David Reade, Nielsen’s campaign manager and his legislative chief of
staff, calls Schaupp’s residency claims “a dead issue.”

“You’re going to do a story that’s a non-story,” Reade said.

Nielsen and Reade also point out that each of the assemblymen elected
to represent the 2nd Assembly District before Nielsen also took per
diem payments.

Assembly expense report records show that Richvale Assemblyman Doug
LaMalfa took $186,395 in per diem between Jan. 1, 2002, and Nov. 30,
2008. And LaMalfa’s predecessor, Dick Dickerson of Redding, took
$104,061 between Jan. 1, 1998, and Nov. 30, 2002.

Dickerson, now a Redding city councilman, said he took the per diem
and used the cash to buy a condo within walking distance of the Capitol
because it would have been impractical and expensive to travel back and
forth to Redding. He’s since sold the condo.

Dickerson said he wouldn’t have taken the payments if, like Nielsen,
he already owned a home within commuting distance of the Capitol before
being elected to Sacramento office.

But Dickerson stopped short of criticizing Nielsen or any other
lawmaker who accepts per diem.

“That benefit is available to them,” he said.

Indeed, Nielsen is hardly alone among his peers.

According to Assembly expense reports, of the 81 lawmakers who served
in the Assembly in 2009, all but four took per diem. Most received
between $23,820 and $38,029. Nielsen was one of 10 Assembly leaders to
receive the highest payment amount.

The four Assemblymen and women who didn’t accept per diem were
Democrats Alyson Huber of El Dorado Hills, Mariko Yamada of Davis and
Dave Jones of Sacramento; and Republican Roger Niello of Fair Oaks.

Online mapping programs show a commute from El Dorado Hills to
Sacramento being a slightly longer distance than a trip to the city from
Woodland. Fair Oaks is around the same distance and Davis is slightly

Under a law that’s been a part of the state’s constitution since the
1800s, lawmakers can claim per diem (Latin for “per day”) to pay for
lodging and food expenses for any period in which the Legislature isn’t
“in recess for more than three calendar days.”

The current state per diem rate is $141 a day.

The income is considered tax-free if a lawmaker’s home is more than
50 miles from the Capitol. Lawmakers in districts near Sacramento also
can claim per diem, but that cash is taxable.

Because Nielsen’s official primary residence is in Gerber, the
payments he receives are tax-free.

Lawmakers don’t have to produce expense reports justifying their per
diem or even prove whether they’ve worked for any length of time on the
day the per diem was paid.

In an investigative report this year detailing abuses of legislative
per diem payments, the Orange County Register reported that to claim a
day’s per diem payment, all a lawmaker needs to do is “clock in.” That
could be as simple as a trip through the Capitol parking garage, the
paper reported.

The Register’s stories focused on how, during the real estate boom,
some already-wealthy lawmakers were using their per diem payments to
finance second homes that were later sold for huge profits.

Schaupp said if he were elected he wouldn’t take per diem payments.
Instead, he would work to change the per diem law to make it so that
lawmakers would have to justify their expenses.

Peggy Kerns, director of the Denver-based Center for Ethics in
Government, said the per diem issue falls in an ethical gray area.

“When it comes right down to it, it’s up to the voters to decide
whether that’s something that bothers them or not,” she said.

Consumer Watchdog
Consumer Watchdoghttps://consumerwatchdog.org
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