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How to pay a legislator

By Randy Wright - | Jan 30, 2013

Are Utah legislators giving themselves a raise? This week’s debate over salary and expenses is an exercise in rationalization. A lot of legislators think the flat per diems they receive for lodging and meals are part of their salary. As such, the money goes unabashedly into their pockets even when the don’t actually incur any expense. For those legislators who do incur expenses — those from rural Utah, for instance — any unspent per diem also goes into the pocket.

Few on Capitol Hill bat an eye at this. But let’s go back to principle: The principle behind a per diem is that it’s supposed to cover legitimate expenses, not be an adjunct to salary. Yet, for years, both sources of money have been co-mingled (salary and lump-sum expense per diem without a requirement for receipts), and that has made lawmakers feel entitled to the dough. So now that the Utah Legislature is considering HJR 6, which would require expense receipts, the question comes down to salary.

Here’s what the state’s independent Legislative Compensation Commission says: Give lawmakers a base salary of $16,380, which is the combined total of today’s salary and per diem. Then nobody will feel bad about getting a pay cut when they switch away from flat per diem payments to a system under which the only expenses that will be reimbursed are those with receipts. So much for Salt Lake County lawmakers who go home at night and keep the cash intended for a hotel.

Trouble is that while it’s nice to raise the base by setting the salary at a level equal to the old salary and per diem combined, you still haven’t covered added operating expense to the state — $150,000, 80 percent of which is employer matching contributions to FICA (Social Security) on the higher base salary.

You can parse words all you want about whether or not this constitutes a raise to maintain legislators in the manner to which they have become accustomed. You can argue that a contribution to Social Security is a lost cause and not really a benefit. But the bottom line is that HJR 6, combined with the new salary level recommended by the commission, will cost Utah taxpayers $150,000 more for legislative operations. It’s hard to see how lawmakers can skirt this. While it’s true that legislators cannot set higher salaries for themselves (they generally just follow the commission), there is one exception: They can give themselves less than what the commission recommends. That’s what they ought to be doing in this case to keep the expense dollars neutral and avoid the appearance of a back-door money grab. Note that they’ve shown restraint before, saving the state some $500,000 in recent years through a voluntary salary freeze. They deserve to get back to the old level, but they ought to make that a separate process, not blend it into a compensation stew that’s already confusing enough.

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