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Study finds legislator pay near poverty level

By Billy Hesterman - Daily Herald - | Mar 31, 2013

It is a common misconception that Utah’s legislators are rolling in the dough for the work they do on Utah’s Capitol Hill.

Most of Utah’s lawmakers are doing well enough on the pay scale, but it isn’t because of their elected position, it is because of their chosen career that they work in when the Legislature is not in session.

“The money is not the reason,” Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, said. “I think I like to be in the room when the decisions are being made.”

Valentine is not the only one who ran for a legislative seat for reasons bigger than money. Earlier this year when lawmakers altered their annual salary, many stated that the money wasn’t the reason they do the job. But if it was, a study by BYU professor Adam Brown finds that their pay would be near the poverty level for the work they do.

After this year’s changes legislators now earn about $16,500, slightly more if they are in leadership, per year for their service. Brown found through surveys he conducted with lawmakers — which can be read at www.utahdatapoints.com — that they work about 1,000 hours per year for their legislative job, almost half of those hours happen during the annual 45-day session. By that figure lawmakers earn an hourly wage of just more than $16 per hour.

Brown suggests that if the wage was converted into a full-time wage then the argument could be made that Utah’s legislators are paid wages near the poverty level.

“I have people tell me all the time that I make as much as a federal congressman,” Valentine said. “My wife knows how much I don’t make.”

Lawmakers don’t set their own salary. Every two years the independent Utah Legislative Audit Commission makes recommendations to the Legislature on what their salary should be. Lawmakers cannot alter the recommendation; they can only reject it or accept it. In addition to the base salary lawmakers can be reimbursed for travel and food expenses when on legislative business. They can be refunded for lodging up to $95 per night and $9 for breakfast, $13 for lunch and $16 for dinner.

As far as pay goes Utah doesn’t come close to the compensation given to the highest paid state lawmakers in the country. According to a report created by the National Conference of State Legislatures, California legislators earn a base pay of just more than $95,000 per year. The California Legislature is full-time, as opposed to Utah’s limited time session.

When compared to states with similar populations Utah lawmakers fare somewhat better. The state’s lawmakers earn about $273 per day for their work, but in neighboring Nevada, which is just slightly smaller in population, their legislators earn just $150 per day for their efforts. In Kansas, just larger than Utah in population, the state legislature is paid $88 a day for their base salary.

Another misconception that comes into play with lawmaker compensation is the belief that the Legislature only works during the annual legislative session, which runs from the end of January to mid-March. While a large chunk of their work is done during that time lawmakers still are expected to attend interim meetings, sit on task forces and meet with constituents during the rest of the year.

“You are really making like a buck fifty or three dollars an hour once you include all the extra meetings you attend,” former House member Holly Richardson joked. “You give hours and hours of time every week all year.”

Richardson explained part of being an effective lawmaker is developing good relationships with your constituency. She noted it takes time to build those networks so one can be an effective lawmaker once the session rolls back around at the start of the year.

“If there is a UVU issue, I want to talk to someone who knows the UVU issue really well and I want them to take my phone call,” she said.

Certainly no one feels sorry for the lawmakers because of their low compensation, since they wanted the job. But many might be surprised by how much they don’t make in for their time they give helping create the state budget and considering changes to state law.

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