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Archive for Monday, October 8, 2001

Legislators find creative housing solutions

October 8, 2001

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— If you ever needed evidence that Kansas has a citizen Legislature, check out where lawmakers live during the legislative session.

The wealthier ones have nice condos and homes in Topeka, but many lawmakers seek out the basement apartments, cheap motels or round up a few colleagues to house-sit homes of retirees who escape the Kansas winter for Texas or Florida.

Some have even tried to stay in their offices, although they have been chased out by Capitol officials.

One lawmaker remembers when he and two other legislators rented a house in the "Little Russia" neighborhood right by the railroad tracks.

"Seventy-four coal trains a day crossed that track. The focus of the whole session was beating that train," Rep. Richard Alldritt, D-Harper, said.

When first running for the Legislature, many lawmakers said they gave little thought about where they would live in Topeka during the four-month session that generally runs from January through April.

But living arrangements matter, especially for freshman legislators trying to juggle personal lives while away from home and also trying to learn the seemingly arcane legislative process.

Rep. Melany Barnes, a Democrat from Wichita, said she roomed in a house with Rep. Candy Ruff, D-Leavenworth.

Barnes, who was elected in 1998, said she felt lucky to have such a veteran lawmaker as Ruff, who was elected in 1992, to show her the ropes.

Remembering nights where they would stay up late to plan strategy, Barnes said, "As a freshman it gave me such a step up in figuring out how things get done."

Barnes said the friendship has extended outside the political sphere.

"We're like college girls and can't wait to get together again," she said.

Rep. Tony Powell, R-Wichita, and three other Republican lawmakers house-sit a home in Topeka during the session.

"It's a very exclusive club," Powell joked. "We call it the frat house."

Sharing the home with Reps. Carlos Mayans of Wichita, Steve Huebert of Valley Center, and Ray Merrick of Stillwell, Powell said it reminds him of college days.

He said it is much cheaper to have roommates and that is necessary because of what he says is the low pay of legislators.

Lawmakers receive $77.59 in salary per day during the legislative session. They also receive $85 per day for expenses. When they are not in session, they receive a $5,400 allowance for legislative business. For the average lawmaker, the total comes out to about $21,000 per year in salary and expenses.

Powell said that during the session, most lawmakers simply need a place to crash at night. They spend all day at the Capitol for meetings and then go to one or two lobbyist receptions in the evening, he said.

Sharon Schwartz, office manager for the Division of Legislative Administrative Services, helps match-up landlords and lawmakers. The division even runs newspaper ads, seeking people who want to have someone house-sit their home.

"This has been going on for a very, very long time," she said. Schwartz said the arrangements are mutually beneficial -- lawmakers get cheap digs and the homeowner has someone watching over their property while they are away.

"They want the driveway shoveled. They want it to look like people are around," she said.

Schwartz said after lining up homeowners with lawmakers, she has little to do with the arrangement. "Some homes pass from legislator to legislator without my having to ever contact them," she said.

Alldritt said he has abandoned the house by the railroad tracks for an apartment he shares with two other lawmakers.

But, he said, the memory stays with him. "I never hear a train whistle that I don't think that I have to get across," he said.

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