Senate approved increase in per diems for rural legislators

The Colorado Statesman

The debate over whether some state lawmakers would be receiving a 22 percent pay increase, or simply an increase in living expenses, came to an end Wednesday after the Senate approved a per diem increase for 41 lawmakers who live outside the Denver metro area.

The Senate backed House Bill 1301, an appropriations bill sponsored by Senate Democratic Leader John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, and House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, by a vote of 21-13. The bill now heads to the governor for his signature. Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, has signaled that he supports a per diem increase for rural lawmakers.

The legislation did not have the full support of either the Republican or Democratic caucuses. In fact, 10 Democrats rejected the bill, while three Republicans also voted against the per diem hike. On the other side of the issue, 10 Democrats backed the bill, while 11 Republicans supported it.

Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, on Wednesday took his name off the bill as a co-sponsor, and changed his vote to “no,” even though he voted for the legislation when it came up on Feb. 10 in the executive committee of Legislative Council, a panel that oversees the legislature’s administrative duties. Only House Majority Leader Amy Stephens, R-Monument, voted against the bill at the time.

Shaffer said that as the conversation turned to pay increases, he was unable to support the bill anymore because he has consistently opposed pay raises for state lawmakers during a down economy. Shaffer is currently challenging incumbent U.S. Congressman Cory Gardner, R-Yuma, in the 4th Congressional District. Pay raises for lawmakers is always a polarizing issue on the campaign trail.

Shaffer’s reaction is symbolic of the controversy surrounding HB 1301, first reported by Pueblo Chieftain reporter Patrick Malone. The debate revolves around the per diem increase, which would rise from $150 per day to $183 a day. The increase would only apply to lawmakers who live 50 miles or more outside Denver.

Some lawmakers critical of the bill equate the proposal to a pay increase since rural lawmakers tend to claim per diem for almost all of the 120 days of the legislative session. Lawmakers use the tax-free payments for maintaining temporary abodes in Denver during the session and for food expenses. But unused money could potentially end up in their bank accounts.

“I don’t think that it’s an appropriate time for us to give per diem increase to some of our legislators. The reason is because we know that many of the people in Colorado are still struggling financially and it is not a good time for us to increase our revenues in any way,” said Sen. Jeanne Nicholson, D-Black Hawk.

But lawmakers supporting the measure pointed out that the increase is scheduled to take place automatically because of a 2007 law, and that the legislation only appropriates the annual budget for the legislature. The bill sets aside $34 million to pay for the legislature’s operations next year — only $189,000 would be appropriated for the per diem increase. The only thing that could stop the increase would be a bill that would block raising per diem payments. Lawmakers backed freezing per diem payments in 2010, but no such proposal has been introduced this year.

“If this bill were to fail, and there has been a lot of discussion about this last item that has the per diem increase, and if this bill fails, it actually doesn’t affect the per diem increase,” Morse argued Tuesday during floor debate. “The money would just have to come from somewhere else.”

Others in support of the bill argued that lawmakers have not seen a salary increase since 1999 when pay increased from $17,500 per year to $30,000 a year. They said competitive salaries for lawmakers results in quality legislating.

“I know we’re never going to see a pay raise, never, none of us in here will, it will probably be quite a few years before the legislature sees a pay raise,” said Sen. Lois Tochtrop, D-Thornton. “But the concern I have is that if you do not provide compensation to the legislators, you’re not going to get good legislators.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com