Saving Money is Important

Lawmakers have adopted two bills that would put on hold increases in their salaries and per diem, the money they’re paid for non-travel expenses, primarily for when they’re in session.

House Bill 1423 put off for a year a scheduled increase in legislator salaries. The bill passed the House unanimously on Thursday; the Senate approved it Friday on a 31-4 vote. That pay increase was due to go into effect in the 2021 session, and a one-year pause saves the state $51,131.

Lawmaker salaries, which are paid in monthly increments during the year, were scheduled to increase to $41,449 on January 1, 2021. This would apply to the half of the Senate that didn't get pay increases beginning Jan. 1, 2019. 

Senate Bill 220 would freeze the per diem paid to lawmakers who live 50 miles or more from the state Capitol. Those non-metro lawmakers, as it’s referred to in law, now receive $219 per day to cover expenses during the session. The measure passed unanimously in both chambers.

When they’re out of session, lawmakers also get an interim per diem, at $99 per day, which applies to metro and non-metro legislators. That’s primarily for those who work on interim or year-round committees during the summer, such as the Joint Budget Committee.

The per diem was scheduled to increase to $231 per day in 2020-21. Putting a temporary hold on that increase will save the state $81,162.

Non-metro lawmakers who claim per diem during a standard 120-day session can take home as much as $26,280 above their $40,242 annual salary.

This year, it’s going to be a lot more for quite a few of them.

That’s because of the 73-day timeout, which has extended the 2020 session from the originally scheduled adjournment of May 6. If they adjourn on Monday, which now seems likely, that’s 40 extra days in which they could collect per diem.

And many of them have collected per diem throughout most, if not all, of the timeout, even though lawmakers were not in session.

Those who rent apartments in the metro area during the session still had to pay rent even if they weren’t in Denver during the recess, and those leases generally run six months at a minimum, because few places are available for only 120 days, lawmakers say.

Per diem, according to the Legislative Council staff, is “intended to compensate members for expenses they incur, other than travel expenses, while they are serving during a session, or during the interim for specific functions authorized in state law.” Lawmakers are not required to submit receipts for those expenses.

An open records request submitted May 16 by Colorado Politics found dozens of lawmakers took per diem for a substantial portion of the time they were out on recess.

(Mobile users: Click the link here to see the chart.)

Some takeaways on the per diem requests for March, April and May:

MARCH 2020

House 

  • Of the 38 metro lawmakers in the House, 12 — all Democrats — took the full 31 days.
  • Of the 27 non-metro lawmakers, 19 — six Democrats and 12 Republicans — took the full 31 days.

Senate

  • Of the 19 metro lawmakers, Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg of Boulder and Sen. Jessie Danielson of Wheat Ridge filed for 31 days. Thirteen of the 18 non-metro lawmakers — 10 Republicans and three Democrats — filed for 31 days of per diem.
  • Every lawmaker that month claimed more than 14 days. The least amount claimed among House lawmakers was 21 days for Democratic Rep. Brianna Titone of Arvada. Democratic Sen. Brittany Pettersen of Lakewood took 15 days but was at least partially on maternity leave that month, according to the Legislative Council documents. Among lawmakers not on maternity leave, Republican Sen. Jack Tate of Centennial and Democratic Sen. Nancy Todd of Aurora, took the least, at 20 days.

APRIL 2020

The legislature did not meet any of the 30 days. 

House

  • Of the 38 metro lawmakers in the House, only one — Democratic Rep. Leslie Herod of Denver — took the full 30 days of per diem.
  • Of the 27 non-metro lawmakers, 13 — 10 Republicans and three Democrats — took the full 30 days.
  • Twenty-two lawmakers from the metro area did not file for per diem, as well as four non-metro lawmakers.

Senate

  • Only Fenberg filed for all 30 days.
  • Eleven non-metro lawmakers — eight Republicans and three Democrats — filed for per diem for 30 days.
  • A total of nine lawmakers — a mix of metro and non-metro — didn’t file for per diem at all.

MAY 2020

The legislature returned on May 26, but were not in session May 29-31 because of the George Floyd protests.

House

  • Of the metro lawmakers who filed for per diem prior to that date, only Herod filed for all 31 days.
  • Of the non-metro lawmakers who filed for May, only Republican Rep. Perry Buck of Greeley filed for 31 days. Eleven non-metro lawmakers — 10 Republicans and one Democrat — sought 30 days.

Senate

  • As of May 16, no metro senators had filed for 31 days of per diem
  • Only two non-metro lawmakers, including senior JBC member Republican Sen. Bob Rankin of Carbondale, filed for all 31 days. (Rankin was back in Denver for budget-cutting meetings that began on May 4.)

Of the General Assembly’s 100 lawmakers, 10 took per diem on every day in March, April and May. Herod was the only member of the House to do that. Fourteen members of the House — three Democrats and 11 Republicans — took the maximum per diem of 61 days in March and April. Thirteen of those lawmakers were non-metro. In the Senate, 12 lawmakers, nine Republicans, all outside the metro area, and three Democrats, all metro, took the maximum in March and April.

Herod told Colorado Politics that during the recess she worked as much as 10 hours a day, and sent out a daily newsletter, even on weekends. Those newsletters contained information on the latest science and resources for dealing with the pandemic, which has disproportionately affected the Black community she represents. 

House Democrats also pointed out that during the recess, 39 of the caucus's 41 members collectively held more than 100 virtual town halls, with a dozen hosting five or more. More than half the caucus also conducted phone banks to reach out to older constituents.

In the Senate, eight Republicans also took the maximum amount of per diem: Sens. Don Coram of Montrose, Larry Crowder of Alamosa, Bob Gardner and Owen Hill of Colorado Springs, Dennis Hisey of Fountain, Rankin, Ray Scott of Grand Junction and Rob Woodward of Loveland. Two Democrats — Senate President Leroy Garcia of Pueblo and Sen. Pete Lee of Colorado Springs — took the maximum. 

For the non-metro lawmakers, that’s a check of $20,148 for those who took the full 92 days for March, April and May, including the 73-day recess, and $19,929 for those who took 30 days in May.

Metro lawmakers get $45* per day for per diem, for a total cost of $4,508 for the full 92 days of March, April and May, and the 73-day recess.

Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert of Parker said Monday that those in leadership continued to work "incredibly long hours to keep the conversations going and wheels turning. ... It's been a first time and unusual experience," Holbert said. He took a total of 60 days in March, April and May, according to Legislative Council records. 

The salary change dates back to 2018, when lawmakers voted to increase the annual salary from $30,000 to $40,242. But the law only applied to the half of the Senate elected in 2018 and not to lawmakers who were appointed to their seats after Jan. 1, 2019. The pay increase is also on hold for those up for re-election in 2020, as well as for the senators elected to the nine open seats. 

The four lawmakers who voted against the salary freeze were all Democrats: Sens. Steve Fenberg, Julie Gonzales, Chris Hansen and Faith Winter. Two of the four are among those whose pay won't go up on January 1: Fenberg and Hansen.

Winter made an impassioned plea against the bill Thursday. "Democracy works best with a diversity of ideas" and backgrounds, she told the Senate. It's next to impossible for a waitress or a single mom to have a seat in this chamber.

"We're overrepresented" by retired people, those in real estate or attorneys, she said. "We will not truly have ideas represented ... until we have a discussion about legislator pay."

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, lawmaker pay varies wildly across the country. New Mexico does not pay its lawmakers, although they do collect per diem. New Hampshire pays its lawmakers $200 for every two-year session and no per diem. California lawmakers earn $110,000 per year along with per diem, but that's a full-time legislature.

Correction: A previous version stated that metro lawmakers get $49 per day.

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