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Legislators getting 'raise'

Federal formula to mean an extra $300 this year for each

Thanks to the federal government, legislators, who often criticize Uncle Sam, will be seeing around $300 more in their annual paychecks this year.

It will happen even though a special citizen legislative compensation commission recommends no pay raise for Utah's 104 part-time lawmakers this year.

The increase comes in a $1-per-day increase in their per diem — from $38 to $39 — and a $5-per-day hike in their hotel allowances — from $75 to $80, according to the proposed 2005 fiscal year budget lawmakers were hammering out late Friday.

Added together, the small increase will, perhaps ironically, equal about 2 percent of a legislator's average pay, which is the same amount being considered for state workers in fiscal 2005.

For many Wasatch Front lawmakers who drive home each night of the 45-day general session, the hotel allowance is pure profit.

To avoid the political heat of raising its own pay, the Legislature follows Congress' lead: If legislators don't act on an official recommendation on pay, the raise automatically takes effect. They can, through a bill, reject the pay raise or lower it. They can't increase the recommendation.

And last fall, the Legislative Compensation Commission, a group made up of citizens and former lawmakers, recommended no change in the lawmakers' current $120-a-day pay.

The commission can't make changes in per diem, hotel allowances, travel mileage or health and retirement benefits.

Several years ago, the Legislature tied its per diem and hotel allowances to federal guidelines, under which the payments fluctuate each year.

The average legislator's pay, including per diem and hotel allowance, in the House is $15,894 a year, the commission reported.

The $300 increase to that annual pay comes out at about 2 percent — or about the same pay raise lawmakers are considering giving the state's 18,000 employees, teachers and public college workers. (Actually, state workers get 1 percent pay hikes, another 1 percent in bonuses, which may or may not be continued in fiscal 2006.)

Those legislative increases total $20,000 in the 75-member House, just $7,800 in the 29-member Senate.

But the House and Senate budgets next fiscal year are going up by much more than that.

House budget chairman Rep. Ron Bigelow, R-West Valley, says he decided to put an extra $175,000 of one-time monies into the House budget, an extra $67,800 into the Senate's budget for fiscal 2004-2005, which starts July 1.

"We've run short (of money) in the legislative accounts the last several years. I just wanted to put a little extra in to have a cushion," said Bigelow.

While final numbers won't be known until the spring, Bigelow said that like last year the Legislature is being hit with unexpected health and retirement costs, as well as meeting expenses.

"While we are a part-time body, it seems that we just keep having more and more meetings" that legislators must be paid for, he said.

Also as reported previously, the House, Senate and its three main staff offices — Legislative Research and General Counsel, Fiscal Analyst and Legislative Auditor General — each have "surplus" accounts that total several million dollars.

Those monies will be used to buy new furniture, computers and other equipment when the Legislature moves into two new office buildings located behind the Capitol this spring as the Capitol is vacated for a four-year, $200 million renovation.