Independent panel backs ‘overdue’ pay raise for Utah Legislature

Part-time lawmakers haven’t seen a pay hike since 2013.<br>

(Steve Griffin / The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Gov. Gary Herbert gives the State of the State address from the House of Representatives earlier this year. An independent commission is recommending a pay raise for Utah's part-time lawmakers.

An independent commission recommended Thursday giving Utah legislators what it calls an overdue raise in their daily pay rate, and also backed paying them for more days each year — saying they now often work extra days with no compensation.

“I think this is fair,” said Legislative Compensation Commission member Matthew Bell, a former Weber County commissioner. “And we’ve given them a couple of avenues” to help them overcome the usual public criticism of any pay hike.

Utah lawmakers have not increased their pay since 2013.

The commission now proposes to raise legislative pay from $273 daily to $285.

It also recommends boosting the number of paid days from 60 a year to 65, which would include the 45-day general session, interim meetings, training days and any other days spent on official business approved by legislative leaders.

Under Utah law, legislators may accept one or both of those recommendations, reduce them, or reject them — but not increase them, Bell said.

If Utah’s part-time legislators accept both suggestions, their pay would rise from $16,380 to $18,525 a year, up $2,145 or 13 percent.

If lawmakers accept just the daily rate increase (but not the increase in the number of days paid), pay would go up by $720 a year, or 4.4 percent.

If they raise just the number of days paid (but not the pay rate hike), pay would rise $1,365 a year, or 8.3 percent.

While commission members said they believe lawmakers merit both types of increases recommended, they also openly doubted that officials would choose to take the political heat that might accompany that.

Commission member Diane Christensen said the “optics might be better” by just taking the increase in days, because members could argue it simply pays for some of the many days they now spend on legislative business without pay.

Bell noted that taking just the pay rate increase would bump their pay by just under the 4.5 percent that inflation has increased since their last raise — and they could argue it offsets inflation.

He said including both proposals gives lawmakers options to find ways to overcome political opposition that may arise.

Lou Shurtliff, a commission member who is a former Democratic legislator, said when she served, “We used to joke that we were paid about 50 cents an hour” between long days, and some days without compensation.

While she said compensation is not the reason that many choose to serve, commission member Ken Cote said low compensation may prevent some people who are not wealthy from affording to serve — so appropriate compensation is needed to attract people of all economic backgrounds.

The commission chose not to recommend any increases to extra money that is paid to legislative leaders for the extra hours they spend.

Currently, the House speaker and Senate president are paid an extra $5,000 a year; majority and minority leaders in both houses are paid an extra $4,000; and $3,000 extra goes to whips, assistant whips and Executive Appropriations Committee leaders.

Bell said the extra they are paid barely compensates for any of their extra work, and is almost a symbolic nod of recognition. He said increasing it would not make much of a difference, but might bring political heat.

The commission also chose not to recommend any changes in levels for allowable lodging expenses for out-of-town legislators — currently up to $100 a day, if receipts are provided — nor daily meal expenses of up to $40 with receipts.