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Utah's part-time legislators want to hire helpers

'Constituent services' could cost taxpayers $300,000 a year

The 104-member, part-time Utah Legislature is moving toward hiring staffers to help each lawmaker with his or her legislative duties.

Along the way, state taxpayers may well be asked to spend $300,000 a year or more to provide legislators with what is being termed "constituent services."

"Some of us feel overwhelmed," said Rep. Douglas Aagard, R-Kaysville, a member of the Legislative Process Committee, which is studying more staff help for the part-time legislators. "We don't have time to write back" to constituents seeking help and "can't do the job we want to do" for voters, he added.

All 535 members of Congress have partisanly hired personal staffs. Congressmen also get something that Utah lawmakers can't — free mailing and printing to send out several newsletters each year to all of their constituents. Many Utah legislators pay for constituent surveys each session out of their own pockets or their campaign accounts.

A number of state legislatures also have some kind of year-round staff help for individual legislators, lawmakers were told.

Aagard briefed House Republicans on Wednesday about his committee members' thinking. He also asked the 55-member caucus if they wanted constituent help, and only one of the members didn't. And he asked whether those new staffers should be partisan or nonpartisan. Members were split on that issue, but most favored a partisan staff.

While Aagard warned GOP House members not to get tied to how much the new staff would cost taxpayers, he added that a rough figure would be $40,000 to $50,000 per staffer, including health care, retirement and other nonsalary costs.

If the House hired four new staffers for its 75 members, and the Senate hired two for their 29 members, that would be spending an extra $300,000 a year on legislative staff.

There would be some savings to the Legislature, said Aagard, because currently some lawmakers are using either House or Senate staff to write letters or conduct constituent research, as well as using analysts and attorneys in the Legislative Research and General Counsel's office.

"We have some high-paid lawyers" writing letters for legislators, said Aagard, and that may not be the best use of those professionals' time.

Senate Republicans didn't get around to discussing the proposal at their interim-day caucus, said Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem.

"I personally like the idea of Senate staff and House staff providing constituent services, rather than counsel staff. Counsel staff ought to be attorneys," Valentine said, referring to lawyers in the Legislature's Office of Research and General Counsel.

Valentine said he'd prefer that legislative staff be nonpartisan so that constituents would be able to receive help without regard to political party.

Each 45-day general session, the Legislature pays for extra staff for help with committee hearings and other tasks. University political-science students also often help by serving as interns. They are assigned to an individual legislator or to two lawmakers.

Interns spend much of their time dealing with lawmakers' constituents, answering e-mails and phone calls and helping arrange meetings. But after the legislative session, that help vanishes.

While six staffers for 104 legislators seems reasonable, history has shown that once such elected officeholders get staffers, the number of such staffers tends to grow.

Rep. Mel Brown, R-Coalville, a former House speaker, warned members that it is against state law to use any state resources for political purposes. "And depending on what you ask (the new staffers) to do, you could cross that line, find yourself in real ethical problems."