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Dale Wetzel, Associated Press, Published January 09 2011

Carlson seeks higher housing allowance

BISMARCK – North Da­kota’s House Republican majority leader is seeking a raise for lawmakers’ housing allowance during the Legislature, saying the current $1,040 monthly limit forces some legislators to pay a share of their lodging costs.

Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo, said the oil boom in west­ern North Dakota has prompt­ed more de­mand for Bis­marck hotel rooms. Many won’t agree to house lawmakers for $34.67 a day for a 30-day month, he said.

“Right now, their selection is pretty limited,” Carlson said of legislators seeking hotel rooms. “There’s a number of them paying more than they should have to pay out of their pocket. You don’t work here for the money, but I don’t believe you should go backwards because of that.”

Carlson’s proposal would raise the monthly stipend to $1,228, an increase of 18 percent. The amount is determined by a formula that uses a percentage of the nightly North Dakota lodging rate set by the U.S. General Services Administration for traveling federal employees.

The House’s Government and Veterans Affairs Committee has scheduled a hearing on the measure at 3 p.m. Thursday.

The monthly amount is a maximum that taxpayers will pay for each legislator’s housing. If a lawmaker is staying in cheaper digs, he or she will be reimbursed only for what he or she pays.

Mike Motschenbacher, president of the North Dakota Hospitality Association and assistant general manager of two Bismarck hotels, the Expressway Inn and the Expressway Inn & Suites, said he believed as many as half of Bismarck’s hotels would still decline to house lawmakers even with the proffered increase in reimbursement. A more realistic payment is $1,500 to $1,800, he said.

The two Expressway hotels are owned by Rep. Mark Dosch, R-Bismarck. Mot­schen­bacher said they limit the number of legislators they will house because of the low reimbursement. Fourteen legislators are staying at the hotels, which have 224 rooms between them.

Customers who stay for months at a time can cost less to serve because they don’t have their rooms cleaned daily, Motschenbacher said. However, with a monthly rate of $1,228, “you’ve got to have almost no services” to make a profit, he said.

“You can’t get any lower than that and afford to have them in here,” Motschenbacher said. “That’s why we have to limit them.” At least 10 lawmakers who inquired about staying at one of the motels were refused, he said.

Some lawmakers elect to stay in rented apartments, condos or homes, some of which have been left by residents who traveled south for the winter.

For apartments, the proposed $1,228 monthly would cover the bills. A fairly new two-bedroom apartment in a large building in Bis­marck rents for about $550 to $800 monthly, with three-bedroom apartments going for $750 to $950, said Judy Sauter, marketing and research director for the Bismarck-Mandan Development Association.

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