PHOENIX — Republican and Democrat lawmakers finally found a spending proposal they can agree on: Tripling the allowance lawmakers get for coming to the Capitol.
Legislation introduced Thursday would tie the rate for lawmakers from outside Maricopa County to what the federal government allows for travel. At current numbers, that computes to $129 a day for lodging and $56 for meals.
Out-of-county legislators now get $60 a day for the first 120 days of the Legislature’s session. They also get it for weekends and days there is no session.
There is near unanimous backing for the increase. Most lawmakers say the allowance, which has not been raised since 1984, does not cover the fixed expenses of having to either rent a hotel room or an apartment during the session.
“It’s hardly any money” compared to what it costs to find lodging in Phoenix, said Rep. Rosanna Gabaldon, D-Green Valley.
“I can’t afford to come here any more,” said Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley. “With gas at $3.19 a gallon, I’m already taking a loss at our existing per diem.”
Rep. Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, said lawmakers are effectively getting less now than they did two years ago. She said the cost of serving could deter people from seeking office in the future.
“It costs us to serve here,” said Rep. Noel Campbell, R-Phoenix. “You have to have a house down here.”
And Campbell pointed out that lawmakers, who are paid $24,000 a year, have not had a pay raise since 1998. He figured that $24,000 in 1998 is now worth just $17,000.
That, however, is out of their control. The Arizona Constitution gives voters the power to approve or reject recommendations from a special commission for legislative pay. And proposals of $30,000 and $36,000 have been rejected.
That leaves the allowance, which lawmakers can set themselves, as the only method to alter their finances.
The legislation does not just boost the rates for the 25 representatives and 12 senators who live outside Maricopa County.
It also would give the 35 representatives and 18 senators living in the county — those who can go home each night — an allowance of half the federal rate.
That means $92.50 a day versus the $35 a day they now receive.
Sen. Rick Gray, R-Sun City, said he personally doesn’t need an increase. But he pointed out that the plan was presented as a take-it-or-leave it package. And Gray said he supported it to help rural lawmakers.
Sen. David Livingston, R-Peoria, said in-county lawmakers also have expenses.
“It’s a lot of wear-and-tear on my car and gas and everything like that to come down here and serve,” he said.
Livingston, who was first elected to the Legislature in 2012, said the ideal solution would be to increase the $24,000 pay.
“I think, frankly, if salaries were a little higher for members, I think we’ll get better-quality members down here, we’ll get more successful people down here,” he said.
“And maybe we wouldn’t have to have per diem,” if salaries were high enough, he said. “But the voters have said ‘no’ and we have to honor that.”
Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, acknowledged that he and his colleagues all knew the salary — and could have learned about the allowance — when they sought the office. But he said lawmakers also were allowed to take a deduction on their income taxes on the difference between the per diem allowance and their actual costs.
“You could work that angle and you could come out nearly whole,” Leach said.
But that deduction is gone, thanks to the federal Tax Cut and Jobs Act that kicked in last year, which eliminated the deduction for unreimbursed employee expenses.
“Some of our people are literally paying to do this job now,” said Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott.
Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, had a different way of looking at the issue. She pointed out that a 2016 voter-approved law will boost the state minimum wage to $12 an hour. She said that will make the $24,000 legislative salary less than the minimum wage.
Townsend acknowledged that, at least on paper, being a legislator is supposed to be a part-time job, running from January through late April in normal years. But she said that for herself and many of her colleagues this is really a full-time job, with meetings on legislation and constituent work on a year-round basis.
“I signed up for it,” she said. “But you cannot look me in the face and tell me that I get paid well, because that’s not the case.”
The measure was pushed through committee on Thursday, the same day it was introduced.
It comes at the end of a legislative session that started in January.
“There’s nothing sneaky about it,” Campbell said.
Rep. Randy Friese, D-Tucson, pointed out that it is being debated as a separate bill and not simply being buried deep in the $11.8 billion state budget.