At the 2011 Wisconsin State Republican convention, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald gave a speech railing against big government and governmental dependence.
“Our government is growing too fast, too big; it’s becoming too expensive,” the Republican from Juneau thundered. “One out of every two [people in Wisconsin] are on some kind of government handout,” he claimed (a charge, by the way, that PolitiFact subsequently debunked), before telling the GOP crowd that “we’re getting deeper in debt every day, [and] something is broken here badly.”
You can imagine our surprise when the Wisconsin State Journal reported this weekend that Senator Fitzgerald led all legislators by collecting $18,128 in taxpayer money for his per diems in 2011. Talk about taking full advantage of a “government handout.” Those handouts, of course, were on top of his yearly legislative salary of $49,943.
According to the Legislative Reference Bureau, “each legislator may claim a ‘per diem’ allowance for food and lodging for each day spent in Madison on legislative business.” You’ll notice that each legislator “may” claim these allowances, which means Senator Fitzgerald chose to bill the taxpayers of Wisconsin $18,128 for these per diem charges.
We were curious how far $18,128 went in terms of food and lodging, so we made a few calculations. First, Senator Fitzgerald lists his voting address at N4692 Maple Road in Juneau. According to Google Maps, this residence is 48.5 miles from the State Capitol building in Madison. That’s right, Senator Fitzgerald billed the taxpayers of Wisconsin $18,128 in allowances for “food and lodging” in Madison, even though his residence is not even 50 miles from the State Capitol. In other words, the taxpayers of Wisconsin paid $373.77 for each mile between Big Fitz’s house and the State Capitol building.
Legislators who reside outside of Dane County can claim $88 per day in per diem allowances, which means Big Fitz requested per diems on 206 days in 2011. There were 243 non-public-holiday weekdays, so Senator Fitzgerald claimed per diems on 85% of working days in 2011 and 56% of all days. One wonders if he ever slept or ate at home in 2011. Let’s hope he at least made it home for the holidays!
Although per diems are technically not supposed to be used for travel expenses, Senator Fitzgerald’s $18,128 could have bought him 5,476.7 gallons of gasoline (at $3.31/gallon) to help make that arduous 50-mile journey from Juneau to Madison. On the other hand, he could have just bought a brand new Ford Focus with the money. (Here is a list of 9 other “cool cars,” Big Fitz could have bought for about $18,000)
If he applied all his per diems for food, he, of course, would have had many delicious options from the numerous fine restaurants in Madison. If he opted for frugality, he could have bought 3,362 Big Mac combo meals from McDonald’s (at $5.39 apiece). That’s about 9 Big Mac meals for every day in 2011. I think Morgan Spurlock would counsel against eating that many McDonald’s hamburgers and french fries.
Hopefully, Big Fitz has better taste than that. Maybe he likes the food at the Old Fashioned right across the street from the State Capitol. Senator Fitzgerald could have ordered the tasty Old Fashioned Beer-Battered Wall-Eye Sandwich 1,821 times at $9.95 apiece.
If he was looking for more up-scale fare, I hear the GOP legislators often dine at Kavanaugh’s Esquire Club, which features a surf and turf option of Sirloin & Lobster for $56.95 a plate. Big Fitz could have ordered this tasty dish 318 times – almost once per day – with his per diem allowances.
Perhaps Senator Fitzgerald decided to reward the members of his caucus and treat them to a private dinner at L’Etoile, one of Madison’s finest restaurants. L’Etoile offers a private dining experience in an exclusive dining room for $75 per person. Big Fitz could treat all 17 members of his caucus (Sorry ex-Senators Hopper and Kapanke!) for a savory $1,275. He could host this spectacular meal 14 times – or more than once a month. (Even more often if they decide to exclude Dale Schultz!)
Maybe Senator Fitzgerald is more concerned about housing, since the 50-mile trip back to Juneau is just too long. If he devoted all $18,128 he received in per diems towards lodging in Madison, he could have signed a yearly lease for $1,510.67 per month. This price could get him a one-bedroom apartment on the penthouse floors (for $1,335/month) of the fantastically luxurious Lucky Apartment Building on University Avenue.
Of course, knowing his attitude about the University of Wisconsin, he would probably not want to be surrounded by so many students. Alternatively, he could rent a 1,014 square foot two-bedroom apartment for the entire year for $1,500/month at Washington Court on 536 West Washington Avenue, a stone’s throw from Capitol Square.
Any way you look at it, $18,128 goes a long way. According to this map from the New York Times, a household in non-metropolitan areas of Wisconsin (like Dodge County) with an income of $18,128 ranks in the bottom 15% of all households. Or, in other words, Big Fitz’s per diem allowances alone give him more income than 14% of his neighboring households. Talk about a broken “government handout!”
Governor Scott Walker, Senator Scott Fitzgerald, and the rest of the Wisconsin GOP have repeatedly talked about the necessity of shared sacrifice and the modest reforms needed to balance the state budget. Through salary freezes and increased contributions to health insurance and pension plans, Scott Walker and Scott Fitzgerald legislated an effective 10% salary cut for public workers in Wisconsin.
Scott Fitzgerald does not practice what he preaches. At the same time he is lecturing teachers, nurses, social workers, and other public employees about the need to tighten their belts and make hard but necessary sacrifices, he is charging the taxpayers of Wisconsin $18,128 for food and lodging despite the fact that his residence is not even 50 miles from the State Capitol.
What’s more, he’s not sharing any sacrifice. In 2010, he charged the taxpayers of Wisconsin $16,544 for per diem allowances. Yup, while he forced through an effective paycut of 10% for public employees, Big Fitz, increased by 9.6% the amount of per diem allowances he charged to the taxpayers of Wisconsin.
Over the last two years, Senator Fitzgerald has run up a tab of $34,672 for “food and lodging” that the taxpayers of Wisconsin must pay, despite the fact that he lives about 50 miles or one hour away from the State Capitol. There is your scandal. There is your broken system of “government handouts.” There are 34,672 reasons to Recall Fitz.
Is it any wonder that Wisconsin Senate President Mike Ellis was caught on tape (at the 1:10 mark) denigrating Scott and his brother Jeff by saying: “These Fitzgeralds are the two biggest grifters.”
Scott Fitzgerald has grifted the taxpayers of Wisconsin out of $34,672 in the last two years. Seriously, Senator Fitzgerald? $34,672 for “food and lodging” when you work 50 miles from where you live?