Our View: Truth and legislative pay
March 3, 2012
Citizen legislators ought to be able to represent their constituents at the state Capitol without taking a hit to the pocketbook for doing so, but there should be more transparency and honesty when it comes to per diem pay for Colorado lawmakers.
The Senate and the House passed a bill last week that includes a provision increasing the per diem pay for rural legislators from $150 to $183 per day. The increase previously was established in legislation dating back to 2007, but state lawmakers delayed the per diem hike in 2010 because of the struggling economy.
It appears there will be no such delay this time around despite significant media attention given to the issue in the past week. We don't object to the notion that lawmakers should be compensated fairly for their work on behalf of the people, and we recognize the increased financial and time burdens placed on rural lawmakers whose hometowns and districts are far from Denver.
Sen. Jean White and Rep. Randy Baumgardner, the two lawmakers who represent Routt County at the Capitol, are examples of rural legislators who live more than 50 miles from Denver and thus are entitled to an increased per diem during all 120 days of the typical legislative session. The per diem is intended to cover lodging and other expenses incurred by lawmakers who must rent a second home in Denver four months out of the year. Lawmakers get reimbursed separately for travel expenses and mileage related to going back and forth between their home districts and the Capitol.
For 18 years, rural lawmakers like White and Baumgardner received a per diem of $99. Their Denver-area counterparts receive a $45 per diem. The rural per diem increased to $150 in 2008 and now will increase to $183 with the new legislation. Colorado lawmakers make a $30,000 per year salary, and the new rural per diem of $183 brings total compensation to $51,960 for those legislators who claim the per diem for every day of the session. Of the 41 state senators and representatives eligible for the rural per diem, 14 of them claimed all 120 days of the per diem last year. White and Baumgardner were among the 14.
But White and Baumgardner voted against the increase when House Bill 1301 made the rounds last week. Baumgardner told the Steamboat Today that he wouldn't "vote myself a raise when there are a lot of people struggling to make ends meet." White never returned calls for comment. Considering Baumgardner is challenging White for her Senate District 8 seat this fall, it's no surprise that both voted against the increase.
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Given their votes, will Baumgardner and White claim fewer per diem days this legislative session so as not to benefit from the pay increase? They should. Instead of claiming 120 days this year, each ought to claim no more than 98 days. That way, they'll get no more than the $18,000 they received in per diem pay when the rate was $150.
Here's the bigger point: We want lawmakers to be honest about their pay. If rural legislators need more money to make it possible to live and work in Denver four months of the year, then they should say so. If base pay of $30,000 isn't enough compensation for senators and representatives who put in near year-round work, then make a pitch to residents about why change is needed. We want everyday citizens to be able to hold office in Colorado, but leave the politics out of the pay issue. And if you vote against the per diem hike, don't hide behind your vote while continuing to collect the full amount possible.