Senate OKs pay raise for rural lawmakers

DENVER – The Senate gave final approval to a bill that funds an increase in per diem pay for rural lawmakers Wednesday morning on a 21-13 vote.

Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, voted for House Bill 1301. She will be one of the 41 lawmakers whose per diem pay will rise to $183 next year, up from the current $150.

“I don’t want only the independently wealthy to be in the state Legislature,” Roberts said in an interview.

Lawmakers get a base salary of $30,000 a year. In addition, they can claim per diem pay for every day of the 120-day session. Denver-area lawmakers get $49 per day, and lawmakers outside the metro area get $150 per day. A 2007 bill linked rural per diem to the federal government’s rate, so every year it automatically rises or, in rarer cases, falls.

In debate on the bill Tuesday, one lawmaker publicly spoke against the bill, while six defended it.

Sen. Lois Tochtrop, D-Thornton, said the concept of a “citizen legislature” doesn’t really exist anymore.

“We don’t work four months out of the year. We work 12 months out of the year,” Tochtrop said. “If you do not provide compensation to the legislators, you’re not going to get good legislators.”

Sen. Jeanne Nicholson, D-Black Hawk, was the only senator to oppose the bill in public debate.

“I don’t think that it’s an appropriate time for us to give a per diem increase to some of our state legislators. 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,” Nicholson said.

HB 1301 sets aside $34 million to pay for the Legislature’s operations next year. A sliver of that amount – $189,000 – is for an increase in the daily pay rural lawmakers can claim during the session.

The bill itself does not increase the per diem rate. It merely sets aside the money to fund the raise that already was created in state law in 2007.

It would take a separate bill to put the raise on hold. Legislators did pass a bill to freeze per diem pay in 2010, but so far this year, no one has sponsored a similar bill.

Three Republicans and 10 Democrats voted no on HB 1301, including Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, who had been a co-sponsor.

“This does not impact my pay, and I support additional help for our rural lawmakers, but I’m voting ‘no’ because, right now, with our severe budget issues, I feel it’s just not the right time,” Shaffer said in a prepared statement.

He is running for Congress in the Eastern Plains district. One of the Republican ‘no’ votes came from Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, who is running for Congress in the northern Front Range district.

HB 1301 now goes to Gov. John Hickenlooper for final approval. He has not said whether he will sign it, but he has publicly supported the idea of raising the per diem for rural lawmakers.

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