Fri, Jan. 24

Extended session saves taxpayers on lawmakers' 'per-diem' allowance

PHOENIX -- State lawmakers will begin "saving' money for taxpayers -- sort of.

Legislative rules cut each legislator's "per diem' allowance once the session drags on beyond 120 days. Today is the 121st day.

Lawmakers from Maricopa County will get just $10 in living allowances, down from the $35 a day they were getting until now.

The legislators from the other 14 counties, who were getting $60 a day, now will have to live on just $20.

That computes out to taxpayers shelling out $2,790 a day less today than they did the day before.

That, however, still puts the tab for lawmakers at the Capitol at $1,250 a day, money that they would not have to pay had lawmakers completed their work by their self-imposed deadline of the week on the 100th day -- April 25th -- much less the 120th day of Monday.

The last time lawmakers actually adjourned by that 100th-day deadline, though, was 1994.

Lawmakers, particularly those not from Maricopa County, were not happy about losing the money but resigned to the situation.

"I'm willing to do the job so I take it as it comes,' said Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake. And she avoids extra expenses by living in Phoenix with her son.

Sen. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City, said the problem is not as acute for him as some lawmakers, as he bought a House in Maricopa County after he was first elected in 2006.

"So I have to make the payments, regardless' of whether the Legislature is in session and whether he is getting an allowance.

"And I have to feed myself either way.'

Rep. Jack Brown, R-St. Johns, said he deals with the problem the same way: He has a place near the Capitol.

But the change in state subsidies for lawmakers is not as dire as the two-thirds cut in funding might otherwise sound.

First, lawmakers get the extra money seven days a week, even if they are at the Capitol only Monday through Thursday.

The deal is even sweeter for Maricopa County lawmakers. They get an allowance above and beyond the $24,000-a-year salary set by voters; state workers get an allowance only when they're out of town on public business.

House Speaker Kirk Adams acknowledged the disparity.

"That's a fair question,' he said. But Adams, one of those "in- county' lawmakers who get that mileage and daily allowance, said he is not proposing a change.

Rep. David Schapira, D-Tempe, said the allowance for driving from his home is justified.

He said state employees can move closer to their jobs. But state lawmakers are constitutionally required to live in the districts they represent, even if they may only be 15 miles from the Capitol.

"I don't have a choice of moving closer to the Capitol to save money for traveling,' he said.

Rep. Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix, said he should get a daily allowance on top of his salary. "This is a part-time job,' he said.

And Rep. Rick Murphy, R-Glendale, who also gets that daily allowance for driving from his home, said he sees those funds as a way lawmakers can supplement their salaries.

"The pay rate right now is so low that that was an attempt to keep the overall pay rate down,' he said.

Murphy said having that as an allowance -- as opposed to a pay hike -- means lawmakers are paid only for the days they're actually in session. So if the session lasts longer, the "salary' goes up.

With legislative sessions now running about 150 days, that allowance can add close to $8,000 a year for out-county lawmakers; those in Maricopa County can take in an extra $4,500.

And because it's an allowance, it's not taxable.

Murphy said the only way that could be seen as an incentive for lawmakers to have the session drag on is "only if you can't make more money doing something else, which I think most of us probably can.'

Legislative pay raises can be approved only by voters, which they last did in 1998 when they hiked the salary from $15,000 a year to the current $24,000.

But the measure placed on the ballot that year by a special commission included a trade-off: Lawmakers would not get travel allowances if they were not actually traveling out of town.

Voters approved the measure.

The trade-off, however, did not happen: The state Supreme Court, acting on a lawsuit brought by legislative leaders -- both from Maricopa County -- struck down the new restriction as illegal, meaning lawmakers got to keep the pay hike but didn't have to give up their allowances.

Aside from a living allowance, lawmakers also get something else they don't provide to state employees: 44.5 cents for every mile they drive every day between their home -- or for out-county lawmakers, where they live during the session -- and the Capitol.

By contrast, state employees don't get paid mileage every day to drive to their own jobs.

For the record, last year's session lasted 166 days, counting weekends. The longest session ever was 173 days, which occurred in 1998.

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