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Lawmaker salary math simplified


By Lee Davidson

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Feb 01 2013 10:48AM
Updated May 21, 2013 11:31PM

How legislators are paid will now be less mysterious — coming mostly through a straight salary instead of largely through "reimbursements" or "allowances" for hotels and meals they never used.

The Senate voted 23-3 Friday to give final passage to HJR6, just in time for lawmakers’ first paychecks this session. The House passed it 70-4 earlier this week.

That will give Utah’s part-time lawmakers an annual base salary of $16,380. Previously, they were given a compensation package for essentially that same amount, which was roughly divided into thirds for daily pay, meals and lodging.

"This bill corrects the egregious problem of state legislators basically receiving money for hotels that they don’t stay in, and for meals that they don’t buy and sometimes for miles that they don’t drive," said Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross.

Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, says the new system will be more fair to rural legislators. He said those who live far from Salt Lake City have needed to use past allowances for actual food and hotels, while urban lawmakers who live near enough to commute have been able to simply pocket that money.

The state still will reimburse lawmakers for hotels, meals and mileage during the session or while on official travel, but they must provide receipts to be paid for actual costs. Because of adding that on top of salaries, the state figures the changed system will cost an extra $150,000 a year.

Still, legislators say they are not receiving a pay raise overall — as some will receive a bit less because of how changes will affect their taxes, and some receive slightly more because actual hotel and meal expenses will be covered on top of a regular salary.

They also note the change was recommended by the independent Legislative Compensation Commission. Legislators by law may only accept compensation recommended by that commission, or less, but cannot give themselves raises beyond that.

The new system "surely is more in line with standard business practices," said Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City. "This is something that should have been done years ago."

"HJR6 makes legislative compensation more transparent," said Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe. "This allows us to show our compensation for what it is, rather than have it show up as reimbursements that we may or may not use."

The change was debated last year, but failed to pass then. But during the last election, some legislators were attacked by challengers for taking "reimbursements" for hotels and meals not used — even though most lawmakers have simply viewed that as part of their salary.

Of note, new rules will not allow reimbursement for alcohol during meals. They allow hotel reimbursement for up to $95 a night. For meals, it allows reimbursement of up to $9 for breakfast, $13 for lunch and $16 for dinner.

With the rule change, the House and Senate have different plans about who will pay for their caucus lunches during the session — where members often eat and discuss bills. House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said House members plan to pay for it themselves and seek state reimbursement. The House has not had caucus lunches sponsored by special interest groups for several years.

However, the Senate plans to continue having some of its lunches paid for by special-interest groups seeking to address members, and senators will not seek reimbursement for them, said Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy.

For those Senate lunches that are not sponsored by outside groups, Niederhauser said the Senate’s "Third House" social arm will pay for it, and senators do not plan to seek reimbursement for them. That Third House is funded mostly by donations from senators, most of which comes from their campaign funds, which are also mostly from special interests.

ldavidson@sltrib.com

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