BISMARCK, N.D. - With the election past and the 2013 legislative session approaching, lawmakers face the task of searching for lodging in a tighter hotel and rental market in Bismarck.
A majority of out-of-town lawmakers use their legislative reimbursement to book hotel rooms during the session. But reimbursement rates historically haven’t kept up with what hotels charge, one legislator said. Compounded with a rental vacancy rate in the Bismarck-Mandan area of around 1 percent, it means lodging could be tougher for legislators to find.
“It’s getting harder and harder. This year is probably going to be the worst because of what’s going on with the occupancy rates,” said Rep. Mark Dosch, R-Bismarck.
Dosch is owner of the Expressway Inn and Suites in Bismarck. He estimated that about 80 percent of out-of-town legislators book hotel rooms during sessions. The other legislators either rent apartments or make arrangements with friends, family or local homeowners who are away for the winter, he said.
The reimbursement rate for a legislator’s lodging is $1,351 per month, or $45.03 per day.
“It’s just not keeping up with the rates in Bismarck. The state should be reimbursing with the market rate,” Dosch said. He estimated the average market rate for a hotel room in Bismarck at around $78 per night.
The final report from the interim Legislative Procedure and Arrangements Committee recommended keeping the same level of reimbursement.
Some hotels have their own rates to offer legislators. According to a hotel bid summary from the North Dakota Legislative Council listing rates for legislators during the session, hotels listed have rates from as low as $45.04 plus tax per night to $109 per night plus tax.
Dosch said with the low reimbursement rate, it makes it tougher for both hotels and legislators. On the one hand, hotels may offer lower rates to legislators, which ends up losing them money. On the other hand, regardless of the rate a hotel offers, legislators must pay the difference beyond the reimbursement level.
“The ones that are staying with us, the majority of them have been with us for 15 years or longer,” Dosch said. “You (actually) don’t want that many legislators, to be honest.”
A regular guest Rep. Blair Thoreson, R-Fargo, said he’s stayed at Expressway Inn each session since being elected to the House in 1999 and by having become a regular at the hotel, he hasn’t experienced any difficulty in booking a room.
Thoreson said he has paid some out-of-pocket expenses during a few previous legislative sessions.
“It’s just another one of those challenging things every two years,” he said. “Obviously, I would prefer to not have to pay out-of-pocket to serve, but I will if I have to.”
During the 2011 session, the House passed a bill that would have increased lodging reimbursement. The Senate rejected it because it contained a provision that retroactively would have paid lawmakers more for lodging during the session that was under way.
“I know there is pressure in Bismarck,” Thoreson said of lodging rates. “I’d like to see that (reimbursement) taken care of sometime soon.”
Sen. Mac Schneider, D-Grand Forks, said he arranged to rent the home of a Bismarck couple living in Arizona for the winter.
“I pretty much lucked out, talking to a friend of a friend,” Schneider said.
Schneider said for him, it’s a step up from previous sessions when he stayed in the basement of a former college roommate’s home.
“I haven’t really spoken very much with my colleagues about the housing reimbursement issue. Anecdotally, I would say the reimbursement rates are fair,” Schneider said.
Jeanette Leiss, general manager of the Candlewood Suites in Bismarck, said the first wave of inquiries about rooms came in immediately after the election.
Leiss said Candlewood Suites will house some legislators. She declined to give the exact number, but added that she expects the number of those who plan to stay at Candlewood to increase slightly before the session begins.
If the reimbursement levels were more in line with the local market rates, Candlewood would be able to provide more legislators with rooms, she said.
“We just can’t afford them at this rate,” Leiss said.
Lyle Schneider, general manager of the Radisson Hotel, said the Radisson usually has one or two legislators stay during the session. He said the hotel usually don’t hear from any legislators until closer to the session.
“I haven’t had anything from anyone as of yet,” Lyle Schneider said.