Per diem hike for state lawmakers awaits final approval

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— State Rep. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, voted against a House bill that would have increased his daily per diem even though he said the existing allowance doesn’t cover his expenses. His vote may be in the minority, however.

State lawmakers are considering increasing the daily per diem by $33 for legislators who live more than 50 miles from Denver. The per diem for lawmakers who live within 50 miles of the Capitol is $45 per day and isn’t scheduled to change.

Under the proposal, those rural lawmakers would be eligible to receive $183 per day for each day of the legislative session. They currently get $150 per day.

For those lawmakers who collect per diems for all 120 days of the legislative session, it would increase their potential allowance from $18,000 to $21,960. The increased per diem could cost the state about $189,000.

The per diem allowance is in addition to the $30,000 lawmakers earn annually.

“I was not going to vote myself a raise when there are a lot of people out there struggling trying to make ends meet,” said Baumgardner, who represents Routt County in House District 57.

According to the Denver Post, Baumgardner and Sen. Jean White, who represents Routt County in Senate District 8, were among the 14 rural lawmakers who collected the per diem all 120 days last year. There are a total of 41 lawmakers eligible for the $150 per day per diem.

The House voted to approve the increased per diem as stipulated in House Bill 1301, which also funds other legislative operations such as staff, by a 34-28 vote Feb. 15. Rep. Sal Pace, a Pueblo Democrat who will challenge U.S. Rep Scott Tipton for the 3rd Congressional District seat in November, also opposed the per diem increase.

The Senate discussed the matter Tuesday and gave it tentative approval on a voice vote. Roll call was not taken, so individual senator votes weren’t recorded. A formal vote is pending.

White, whose district includes Routt County, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment. Baumgardner and White are running against each other for the Senate District 8 seat this fall.

Republican Senate Leader Bill Cadman told the Associated Press that lawmakers’ pay is not going up, just reimbursement for expenses. He took the podium Tuesday to condemn press accounts calling the change a “pay hike,” saying the public has misunderstood the accounting bill.

“And we wonder why people are confused about what we do for them,” Cadman said.

Cadman’s counterpart, Senate Democratic Leader John Morse, argued that the per diem hike is scheduled to go up under current law and that the bill before the Senate on Tuesday only rectified the books.

Only Sen. Jeanne Nicholson, a Black Hawk Democrat, spoke against the per diem increase Tuesday.

Chuck McConnell, a Steamboat Springs Republican running for the new House District 26 seat, said he doesn’t think any state lawmaker seeks public office for the money. But McConnell said if the costs for rural legislators has increased in recent years and the increased per diem helps them meet their expenses, “then it seems reasonable.”

Like Baumgardner and White, McConnell said he’s aware of past Routt County lawmakers who have collected the allowance.

“Given the history and the desire to just stay whole on those costs, I very likely would collect any per diem that was allowed by law,” he said.

McConnell said that without knowing all the facts, his instinct would be to support the increase.

Diane Mitsch Bush, a Democratic Routt County Commissioner who is opposing McConnell for the House District 26 seat, disagreed. Mitsch Bush said she would not support the per diem increase because it’s not an appropriate time to increase legislator pay.

Mitsch Bush said she diverts a portion of her salary as Routt County commissioner to local nonprofits supported financially by the county. She called it a “voluntary pay cut” because state statutes prohibited commissioner pay decreases.

But Mitsch Bush said she understands the need for the per diem. If elected, Mitsch Bush said, she would find the cheapest place she could that allowed her to walk to the Capitol and use the per diem to cover living and travel expenses, but not food.

“One of my major goals has always been and will continue to be to save the taxpayers money,” she said.

If approved by state senators on third reading, Gov. John Hickenlooper would consider the bill. He has supported it.

“I realize it’s politically unpopular, but I think it’s probably the right thing to do,” Hickenlooper told the Associated Press last week.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

To reach Jack Weinstein, call 970-871-4203 or email jweinstein@SteamboatToday.com

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