DENVER – Southwest Colorado’s representatives voted to fund a $33 per day increase in pay for rural state legislators last week.
The bill quietly passed the House on a 34-28 vote with no debate Wednesday, two days after it was introduced. The Pueblo Chieftain reported Saturday that the bill appropriates money for a pay increase next year – a fact that is not directly mentioned in the bill or summaries prepared by legislative staff.
Rep. J. Paul Brown, R-Ignacio, and Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, voted in favor of the bill, House Bill 1301.
Both lawmakers said they thought it was important to pass the bill, which funds the operations of the Legislature and its staff.
“Leadership felt like – for not just the legislators, but for the staff – that we needed to have enough votes to pass that bill,” Brown said.
Senior lawmakers sponsored the bill – Speaker of the House Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, and Senate Majority Leader John Morse, D-Colorado Springs. It passed by a thin margin, with 21 Republicans and 13 Democrats backing it. Ten Republicans and 18 Democrats voted no.
Brown and Coram said rural legislators face financial challenges that urban lawmakers don’t have.
The rent for the Denver apartment Brown uses during the session went up $100 a month this year.
“I’m probably the farthest away from (Denver as) anybody. With the new district, too, I’m going to have to spend more time going different places,” said Brown, whose new district stretches from Durango to Gunnison.
“It’s very expensive to maintain two homes. My district right now is 7,700 square miles,” Coram said, adding that he can’t pay his travel expenses through his campaign account because he does not have an opponent and does little fundraising.
Legislators earn a base salary of $30,000 per year. Legislators in the Denver-metro area also get $45 a day during the January-May session. Outside the metro area, they get $150 in per-diem reimbursements, plus reimbursement for one trip home per week.
HB 1301 appropriates $34.3 million to run the Legislature, its staff and the state auditor’s office. It includes $189,000 to pay for an increase in per-diem pay for 41 rural legislators to $183 a day, or an extra $3,960 each per session. The raise would take effect in the 2013 session.
Legislators in 2007 hiked the rural per-diem pay to 85 percent of the federal government’s standard rate, which worked out to $150 a day. But in 2010, when the federal government raised its rates, Colorado legislators voted to forgo their increase for two years as the state grappled with budget cuts.
At the same time, legislators were cutting state employee pay in 2009 and reducing contributions to retirement benefits in 2010 and 2011.
“State employees, from snowplow drivers to nurses, have sacrificed a great deal over the past four years,” said Scott Wasserman, executive director of Colorado WINS, a state employee union. “Now that we’re seeing green shoots in this economy, we’re hopeful that state legislators will make sure that their state workforce doesn’t get left behind in the recovery, especially in areas like Durango that depend on public employees to sustain local businesses.”
It would take a separate bill for legislators to delay the per-diem raise again, but so far, no one has introduced such a bill. That might change.
The bill is now in the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, said some members will have a problem voting for it in its current form. Shaffer is a bill co-sponsor.
“Suffice it to say we’re looking at all options,” Shaffer said.
McNulty said Monday morning the per-diem raise might be changed when the Legislature passes the state budget later this spring.