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Panel to study lawmaker pay

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Although Utah's 104 part-time lawmakers make less than many of their counterparts in other states, the Legislative Compensation Commission wants a comparative analysis of the benefits legislators receive, suspecting the overall compensation package is significantly generous.

The commission, made up of business leaders and one retired lawmaker, is mandated by law to review and make recommendations about the salaries of elected officials every two years.

Those recommendations are then forwarded to the Legislature, which can accept the suggested pay raise without a vote or with a vote can lower the raise or reject it completely.

As commission chairman Milton Thackeray noted, those recommendations are seldom acted on by the Legislature — and so the pay raise is accepted automatically. The Legislature also sets its own benefits package, outside the purview of the commission.

In a meeting Tuesday, commission members received information about what Utah's lawmakers make, as well as those in other states.

Utah, which has a part-time Legislature that convenes for 45 days in general session each January and February, pays its legislators $120 a day, plus $75 for lodging and $42 for other expenses.

Arizona, by contrast, has a 120-day session and pays its lawmakers a salary of $24,000 a year, plus a per diem of $35 a day.

But while Utah lawmakers bring in an average annual pay of $12,500, including expenses — and even voted to reduce their salaries by $20 a day for six months during the state's fiscal crunch last year — the commission took note of a benefits package that nears the $10,000 mark each year.

That includes the state picking up 80 percent of the premium for dental coverage, paying the premium on a $25,000 life insurance policy and retirement benefits that include Medicare supplemental insurance for legislators who have served a minimum of four years.

Fourteen legislators receive retirement benefits, with the state paying from 40 to 100 percent of the premium. A report by commission staff said the annual cost to the state is $75,472, up from about $33,000 in 2001. That extra expense was not anticipated, and legislative leaders last January had to add a significant supplemental appropriation to the Legislature's own budget to pay for it.

The amount of benefits paid by the state is 10 percent for each year of legislative service and includes the premium for the legislator's spouse. The report said the individual monthly premium is a low of $93 per person and a high of $275.

Even Haven Barlow, a retired legislator with 42 years of service under his belt, said he suspects the benefits package revamped in 1998 is significant.

"You have to consider the value of the health care supplemental," he said. "I suspect it is going to be a lot higher than we think."

The commission wants an actuarial projection of the lawmakers' benefit package, based on the notion that Utah lawmakers serve an average of six to eight years before they retire.

That information will be presented to the commission in its meeting in early October, where members will decide on a list of recommendations to send on to the Legislature.

E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com