Lawmakers find bipartisan support for increasing in-session expense pay

By: - May 27, 2019 10:48 pm

For the first time in more than 30 years, Arizona lawmakers could see an increase in the per-diem pay they receive to cover their expenses during the legislative session.

The House of Representatives and Senate on Monday both signed off Senate Bill 1558, which would tie legislative reimbursement to federal per-diem rates.

The bill now goes to Gov. Doug Ducey.

Currently, legislators from Maricopa County receive $35 per day, and those from outside the county receive $60 daily. After the 120th day of the legislative session – the bill was passed on the 134th day of the session – that reimburse drops to $10 and $20.

Under SB1558, lawmakers’ per diem would roughly triple. Those from outside Maricopa County would receive $185 per day and those who hail from inside the county would get half that.

The Senate passed the bill on a 22-7 vote, while the House passed it 37-23. Unlike most contested legislation, there was no partisan split, with Republicans and Democrats voting on both sides of the issue. And despite repeated testimony that the low per-diem rates were especially tough on rural lawmakers, some rural House members voted against the bill, as well.

The budget that lawmakers approved Monday includes $6.2 million more for the House and Senate, which will in part pay for increases in the per-diem payments.

For many lawmakers, the issue was one of fairness. During the legislative session, rural lawmakers must not only make the long-distance drive to Phoenix on a regular basis, but must find a place to stay in the capital city.

“This is not a salary increase. This is a reimbursement for actual expenses that we spend down here, and it’s not enough,” said Rep. Noel Campbell, a Prescott Republican who sponsored the House version of the bill.

Several lawmakers said the lack of adequate per-diem pay is a financial hardship that discourages people from serving in the Legislature. Sen. Lisa Otondo, a Yuma Democrat, said that makes it harder to get lawmakers who are truly representative of the people they serve.

“If we want representation from the people, we must make it affordable for them to stay in the city of Phoenix during session,” Otondo said.

But others emphasized that it looked bad for lawmakers to vote to increase financial reimbursement to themselves, and to do it so late in the session, side-stepping the normal deadlines for introducing legislation. Rep. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, said the legislature should consider the optics and the timing of the issue.

“Timing is bad. I think we need to educate our voters,” Kern said.

The budget deal that lawmakers approved increases the House and Senate budgets by a combined $6.2 million.

Some opponents likened the bill to a pay raise, and noted that voters have consistently opposed increasing legislative salaries since 1998, when they approved the current $24,000 salary. Legally, per-diem is a separate issue that, unlike salary increases, don’t require voter approval, a principle that the Arizona Supreme Court upheld in 1947.

Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, said raising lawmakers’ per-diem pay sends the wrong message to voters who have consistently rejected legislative pay raises. Quezada said he wishes voters wouldn’t reject those salary increases. But it’s up to the voters to decide these things, he said.

Rep. Becky Nutt, a Republican from Clifton, said it’s inconvenient to be a rural legislator. She said she doesn’t get to see her family much during session, and lives in her fifth-wheel when she stays in Phoenix. But she said she didn’t feel right voting to give herself a raise.

“For me, it’s not about the money. We know how much we’re going to make when we decided to run for office,” Nutt said.

Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, replied that he can’t afford a fifth-wheel.

“It’s not about making money. It’s about breaking even,” he said.

One lawmaker, Rep. Joanne Osborne, R-Goodyear, said increasing per-diem for rural lawmakers would be justified. But she said she couldn’t support increasing the pay for those who live in Maricopa County and don’t incur many expenses. She noted that she gets to go home to her family during session, but her seatmate, Rep. Tim Dunn, who lives in Yuma, can’t.

Osborne said she’d vote to increase per diem pay if there were a mileage qualifier. But when it comes to the current bill, “I can’t support it for myself because it doesn’t make sense.”

The House’s initial version of the bill hit a brief snag earlier in the day. After House Bill 2760 sailed through the House Appropriations Committee, the bill unexpectedly died on a 4-4 vote in the House Rules Committee. The committee reconvened a short time later and passed it 4-3 after one of the “no” votes, House Majority Leader Warren Petersen, skipped the hearing.

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Jeremy Duda
Jeremy Duda

Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Jeremy Duda previously served as the Mirror's associate Editor. Prior to joining the Arizona Mirror, he worked at the Arizona Capitol Times, where he spent eight years covering the Governor's Office and two years as editor of the Yellow Sheet Report. Before that, he wrote for the Hobbs News-Sun of Hobbs, NM, and the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Jeremy is also the author of the history book “If This Be Treason: the American Rogues and Rebels Who Walked the Line Between Dissent and Betrayal.”