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Lawmakers discuss pay - wind up justifying gift-taking

Politics is sometimes delicate work, as seven legislative leaders found out Tuesday when they appeared before a citizens' group charged with recommending legislative pay raises and ended up defending lawmakers' gift-taking.

House Speaker Mel Brown and members of the Legislative Process Committee are studying whether it's better to pay lawmakers per day of work - as is now the case - or switch to an annual salary.They're a bit hamstrung in their efforts, however. A state law says the Legislative Compensation Commission must recommend matters of pay to lawmakers, who can adopt the commission's recommended pay increases, adopt a lower raise for themselves or reject any pay raise. Lawmakers may not increase their pay above the level recommended.

Tuesday, the process committee met with the compensation committee. Legislators offered to answer any questions. They seemed a bit shocked when commission member Scott Marquardt, an Ogden management consultant, suggested any pay raise or pay reform be tied to curtailing gift-taking by legislators.

Wouldn't it be better public relations for legislators if a pay raise "were tied to gifts - the acceptance of gifts?" Marquardt asked.

"What about these discounted hotel rooms," for example? he asked.

Marquardt referred to a story several months ago in the Deseret News that disclosed that many - but not all - legislators stay at the Little America Hotel during the general session and interim days at special discount rates provided by the hotel's owners.

Marquardt suggested there could be some kind of give and take - so to speak.

If the Legislature "did something strong" in restricting gift-taking, "this (pay) commission could look at (increasing legislative) salaries," Marquardt said.

Rep. Byron Harward, R-Provo, said: "No legislator is getting significant money from gifts. If we restricted (gifts), there may be some who play fewer rounds of golf, go to fewer Jazz games" - perks routinely provided some lawmakers by lobbyists. But there would be no great impact on a lawmaker's income, Harward said.

"But these Little America (hotel) discounts add up to real numbers," Marquardt said.

But he misunderstands, Harward said. While the state used to pay lawmakers a flat $50 a day for a hotel room, whether the room cost $50 or not - and some frugal legislators made money by staying at cheap or discounted rooms - that is no longer the case. Now legislators are simply reimbursed for actual hotel costs up to $65 a day.

Senate Majority Leader Leonard Blackham, R-Moroni, said, after some discussion of gifts and how the process committee itself is studying the matter, that while it may be wise politically to run a legislative pay reform bill with a legislative ethics bill, the two issues must "stand independently, and be defended alone. We shouldn't tie (legislative gifts) with your recommendation (on legislative pay or annual salaries)."

That connection, of course, is exactly what Congress did several years ago when first the U.S. House and then the Senate gave themselves huge pay raises in return for stopping the practice of accepting honorarium - paid speaking fees - from people interested in influencing congressmen. Congressmen earned up to a third of their congressional pay in speaking fees back then.

Brown is careful to point out he doesn't suggest any pay increase for Utah lawmakers. "That is up to you (the commission) to recommend (or not)," he said Tuesday.

Rather, Brown believes it a good idea to pay lawmakers a flat, yearly salary; one not based on whether a legislator attends an official legislative meeting, signs the roll and gets his daily pay of $100. Legislators also get $35 per diem (to pay for meals and expenses), mileage to and from meetings and up to $65-a-day for a Salt Lake hotel room.

Lawmakers get paid every day of the 45-day general session (they never actually meet on Sundays and rarely meet on Saturdays), for the day-long, monthly interim study day (when not in session) and for any special meetings, such as task forces and subcommittees, approved by legislative leaders. Pay ranges from around $7,300 a year for legislators who don't sit on many special committees to about $12,000 a year for the more veteran legislators who sit on many paid committees.

The speaker of the House and president of the Senate also get an extra $1,000 a year for holding those posts.

Several legislators told the pay commission that their workloads have doubled and tripled in the last 10 to 15 years.

"When I started up here in 1979, we made $25 a day and I was overpaid," said Rep. Evan Olsen, R-Young Ward. But his work has since tripled. "At this time of year (as the general session approaches), you don't have enough hours in the day to talk to everyone, meet with everyone."

Brown said he spends three or four days a week on state business. "I don't complain, I sought" the speakership, he said. Blackham said he spends three days a week away from his Moroni turkey-growing operation on state business.

Pay commission members also talked about paying committee chairmen more than rank-and-file legislators. That opens some interesting doors, as minority Democrats on the process committee pointed out.

No Democrats, of course, serve as committee chairmen. Only majority Republicans get that honor. And in the Senate, where there are so few senators that each Republican is a chairman of either a standing or budget committee, paying chairman more automatically gives the 20 GOP senators more money than the nine Democrats.