DENVER – State senators backed a move by the House on Friday to raise the daily reimbursement for rural legislators by up to $3,960 a year.
House Bill 1301 sets aside money to pay for the Legislature’s operations, and it includes a $33 increase in daily expense reimbursement to $183. The increase has been scheduled in law since 2007.
Senior lawmakers and Gov. John Hickenlooper have stepped forward to defend the raise.
“I realize that it’s politically unpopular, but I think it’s probably the right thing to do,” Hickenlooper said Thursday.
Rural lawmakers face increasing costs and barely make enough money to break even, he said. Sen. Ellen Roberts of Durango and Rep. J. Paul Brown of Ignacio would be able to claim the increased per diem next year.
The Senate Appropriations Committee voted 9-0 Friday to send the bill to the full Senate.
Speaker of the House Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, said the media has been wrong by labeling the extra money a pay raise.
“The policy is the right policy. This has been misrepresented and misreported from the beginning,” said McNulty, who sponsored HB 1301 but is not eligible for the raise. “This is a per diem to reimburse members for their living expenses and other related expenses when they’re here in Denver. When this is accurately reported, I think people will understand.”
Legislators make a base salary of $30,000. Metro-area members also get $49 a day during the 120-day annual session. Rural members get $150 a day, plus reimbursement for one round-trip home per week by car or air. The $49 and $150 daily reimbursements are tax-free.
House Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, backed up McNulty.
“This is a citizen legislature, and if we want citizens to run for office and be able to do this ... this is a way we can get good people from both parties,” Ferrandino said.
But the arguments did not impress Matthew Keefauver, a Cortez city councilor and teacher at Kemper Elementary School. Keefauver testified last summer in a lawsuit against the state for chronically underfunding public schools. He moonlights at a Cortez garden center to earn money to pay for classroom supplies and field trips.
“I think it is ironic that legislators think they can give themselves a raise when teachers are doing more with less,” Keefauver said.
He expects to have to buy paper for his classroom soon, when the reams that parents bought last fall run out.
“I wish that teachers had the ability to decide what was truly needed,” he said.
It would take a separate bill from HB 1301 to reverse the pay increase, but at this late date, legislators would need permission to introduce a bill from their chamber leaders – the same people who sponsored HB 1301.
No one has yet asked for a late bill, McNulty said.
“We’ll take it up and review each one of these requests when they come in,” he said.
The Senate sponsor of HB 1301, Sen. John Morse, R-Colorado Springs, flatly said he would not approve a late bill in his chamber to delay the per diem increase.
The House already approved it in a 34-28 on Feb. 15. Southwest Colorado’s representatives, Republicans Brown and Don Coram of Cortez, voted for HB 1301.
Several representatives who voted no were reluctant to say why.
But former Republican Rep. Mark Larson of Cortez said if legislators think they deserve more pay, they should pass a salary increase rather than increasing their daily reimbursements.
“That’s absurd. When I was in the Legislature, I made money on the per diem, and that was at $99 a day,” Larson said.
Forty-one of the 100 legislators would get the per diem raise.