This isn’t about the merits or whatever you may think about the vaccination bill that just passed on Saturday, but about a related issue.
Rep. Matt Soper, a Delta Republican, made the oddest case Wednesday against the process for moving Senate Bill 163 out of the House Health & Insurance Committee, a hearing that took place on Sunday, June 7.
He pointed out during final debate on Senate Bill 163 that only twice in the last 11 years has the General Assembly met on a Sunday.
The last time prior to June 7, Soper said, according to researchers in the Legislative Council staff, was March 1, 2009. The general public is unaware when lawmakers meet on a Sunday, he said.
(As an aside, the House didn't actually conduct business that day. The House had taken Feb. 26 and 27 off, and under the rule that says the legislature can't adjourn for more than three days, they had to be back that Sunday. According to then-Majority Leader Paul Weissman of Louisville, it was part of an effort to give lawmakers an extra day off at the midpoint of the 2009 session. The Speaker of the House, Terrance Carroll of Denver, gaveled the House in on that Sunday, but only five people showed up, and that lack of a quorum led Carroll to gavel the House right back out, and the session resumed the following day.)
So the last time the House met on a Sunday and did actual business? Unknown, but not in Capitol M's 22 years covering the lege.
Back to Soper's contention about working on Sundays. The committee hearing should have been held in a regularly-scheduled committee time, during the regular work week, when citizens “expect us to be working,” Soper added.
It’s that last part that caught Capitol M’s interest.
The usual 120-day session of the Colorado General Assembly, when it’s not being held during a pandemic, runs continuously from the opening day to the end.
Lawmakers don’t meet every one of those 120 days. They don’t usually meet on Saturdays, Sundays or on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, President’s Day or Good Friday.
But they get paid for every one of those days, regardless of whether they’re at the Capitol or not. Salaries are paid out in 12 monthly checks, even though lawmakers are only in session for 120 days. They also collect what’s known as per diem.
According to the Legislative Council, per diem is to be used 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." During the session, metro members receive $45 per day, while non-metro members (those who travel for more than 50 miles to the Capitol) receive 85% of the federal per diem rate for Denver, currently $219 per day. Interim per diem is $99 per day for all members. That's paid to lawmakers who participate in interim or year-round committees that meet off-session, such as the Joint Budget Committee.
Soper, by the way, is one of the House sponsors of a bill that passed the General Assembly this week to put off for a year an increase in the per diem for non-metro lawmakers.
For the heck of it, on May 16, Capitol M requested an accounting of lawmakers who took per diem during the timeout.
The General Assembly adjourned on March 14 and came back on May 26.
In March, out of the House’s 38 metro lawmakers, 12 took per diem for 31 days, despite the General Assembly going into recess with 17 days left in the month. That includes Speaker of the House KC Becker and House Majority Leader Alec Garnett of Denver, which you would expect, given their responsibilities.
House Minority Leader Patrick Neville of Castle Rock took less, with 22 days of per diem in March.
Of the 27 non-metro members, 19 took per diem for the entire month of March, which means they claim they continued to work (and generate expenses tied to that work) throughout the entire month, even when not at the Capitol.
Soper is among that group that took all 31 days of per diem.
The April per diem looked a lot different, owing in part to the fact that the General Assembly didn’t meet at all during that month.
It did not, however, stop lawmakers from filing for per diem.
Of the metro lawmakers, only one, Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat, filed for all 30 days. But of the non-metro lawmakers, 13 of the 27 filed for all 30 days. Including Soper.
Herod told Capitol M that she sent out a daily newsletter, even on the weekends. She put in 10-hour days most days, advocating for her constituents for adequate testing. In a pandemic, "it's even more important for elected officials to step up and keep constituents informed on what's going on," including with the newest science, she said.
Soper said his per diem kept his Denver apartment rent up to date, even when he wasn't here. During the recess, he said, he "ran back and forth to Denver. Just because we were physically out of the building, there were occasions when I needed to physically be here," even if it was just for a day at a time.
The session resumed on May 26, with just five days left in the month. It didn’t stop lawmakers from filing for per diem for the entire month, and several filed for the entire month before the session even resumed.
As of May 20, when Capitol M got the response, more than half of the metro lawmakers had not yet filed for per diem.
Of the 27 non-metro lawmakers, as of May 20, at least a dozen had filed for either 30 or 31 days. Soper filed for 30 days.
When you combine those three months, Soper and other non-metro lawmakers got checks from you, the taxpayers, for almost $20,000. Each. And lawmakers don't even have to submit proof of those expenses.
While Soper’s contention that the public expects lawmakers to work during the regular work week — implying not on weekends — his per diem, and that of a lot of other lawmakers, says they're working on Sundays, too. EVERY Sunday. Or should be, since the taxpayers are footing the bill for it.