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Utahns say no to $20 Hill raises

But it’s likely too late for lawmakers to halt raises

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Three out of four Utahns don't want state legislators to take a $20-a-day pay hike this session, a new Deseret News/KSL-TV poll shows.

But it's likely too late for lawmakers to stop a pay raise anyway — their checks for the 45-day session have already been handed out and likely cashed.

A year ago, legislators voted not to take an automatic pay raise offered by the Legislative Compensation Commission, a group of residents that every two years examines legislative pay around the country and recommends a pay adjustment for Utah's part-time citizen legislators.

The commission recommended the lawmaker's pay go from $120 a day to $130 a day. By rejecting the raise, lawmakers' pay stayed at $120 a day.

GOP and Democratic lawmakers alike said if state rank-and-file workers weren't getting a pay raise in tough economic times (and legislators didn't give workers a raise), then they shouldn't take a pay raise either.

Several months later, meeting in special session, lawmakers went even further.

They voted to cut their pay for the rest of 2002 from $120 a day to only $100 a day. But since all of the House and half the Senate faced re-election in November 2002, legislators said the pay cut would only be until Jan. 1, 2003, when newly elected or re-elected legislators took office.

The new 2003 Legislature would have to decide for itself if legislators' pay would automatically go back to $120 a day.

Sounds good.

But paychecks for the ongoing 45-day session were handed out Monday. Many lawmakers take unpaid leave from their regular jobs to serve in the general session and so need their money upfront rather than waiting until after the session in early March.

Also, unlike interim day meetings from April through December, lawmakers receive their daily pay, hotel expenses, per diem and mileage during the 45-day general session whether they attend Monday-through-Friday meetings in the Capitol or not.

House Minority Whip Brad King, D-Price, sponsored a bill in the 2002 session to reject the $10 pay raise to the $130-a-day level.

"I thought about running a bill this session to keep our pay" at $100 a day, King said Friday. "But it looks like it's too late. Most of our salary each year is paid for the general session, and we've got that."

Rep. Joe Murray, R-Ogden, who ran the bill in the spring special session that cut their pay to $100 per day, also considered running a bill this session to keep the pay at $100. "I even opened a bill file," said Murray, a retired Ogden City fire chief. "But I had so much other stuff I had to do, I just dropped the matter. I guess it's too late now."

A poll conducted by Dan Jones & Associates for the newspaper and TV station found that, considering the state's poor financial picture, 75 percent of Utahns said the Legislature's pay should not go from $100 a day to $120 a day. Nineteen percent said lawmakers should get the higher pay and 6 percent didn't have an opinion.

Most Utahns across the board, from both political parties, men and women alike, believed lawmakers' pay should not go up this session.

Various studies show Utah lawmakers are some of the lowest paid in the nation. In addition to the $120-a-day rate, they also get a $75-a-day hotel allowance (whether they actually stay in a hotel or just bunk at home during the session), a $38-a-day per diem to pay for items like lunches and dinners, and 36.5 cents per mile in a travel allowance to Salt Lake City.

On average, a Utah legislator makes around $15,000 a year. Those elected to leadership positions get a couple of thousand dollars more.

During the interim, April to December, legislators are paid for attending required meetings. In 2002, an unusual year because of budget shortfalls, lawmakers actually held five special sessions. They also met once a month in study committee meetings. And some legislators are also assigned to special task forces or subcommittees for which they also get their daily pay and expenses.

King said he's heard that some legislators are planning to donate their $20-a-day pay increase this session to a charity or nonprofit organization. "But there's no way we can really know who does that" because state income tax returns are private, he said.

Murray notes that while it's true continuing budget problems probably mean the Legislature will not give the state's 20,000 employees a pay raise starting July 1, the new fiscal year, "we in the Legislature won't be getting another raise then either."

The Legislative Compensation Commission will meet again this summer and set a new pay level for legislators. Come the 2004 general session, lawmakers can vote to cut or reject that pay raise.

If they don't act on the recommendation ahead of time, on Jan. 1, 2004, an automatic pay raise will take effect again.

E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com