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Legislature to introduce bill for hefty per diem increase for rural lawmakers

Rep. Eric Descheenie details his legislation Wednesday which would bar publicly funded stadiums, civic centers and similar facilities from displaying any name or logo that any one of the state's 22 tribes finds ``disparaging.'' (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

Former representatives Eric Descheenie and Wenona Benally cited their commute, time commitment and low pay as a reason not to seek re-election in 2018. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

Lawmakers plan to introduce last-minute legislation Thursday to vastly increase the daily allowance they’re provided to cover the cost of living while working at the Capitol in Phoenix.

A petition circulating in the House and Senate requests that House Speaker Rusty Bowers and Senate President Karen Fann push a bill to triple the per diem allowance from $60 per day to $180 per day, at least for lawmakers who reside outside of Maricopa County, according to several lawmakers who saw the document.

It’s unclear what, if any, increase would be provided to lawmakers living in Maricopa County, who usually don’t have to find lodging for their work at the Capitol and now receive $35 per day.

Lawmakers, who earn a base salary of $24,000 per year for what is supposed to be a part-time job from January through May, are additionally reimbursed for their travel to and from the Capitol, and any travel on official business.

Lawmakers can’t unilaterally give themselves a pay raise. Proposed raises require approval by the Arizona Commission on Salaries for Elective State Officers, then a vote by the people. Arizonans have routinely rejected efforts to give lawmakers a pay raise: Since 1972, voters have seen 18 ballot measures asking for legislative raises, but they only approved two.

A question on the 2014 ballot to raise lawmakers’ salaries from $24,000 to $35,000 failed on a nearly two-to-one margin.

The last successful pay increase was in 1998. If legislative salaries kept pace with inflation since 1999, when the higher salary took effect, lawmakers would be making about $37,300 per year today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Per diem, on the other hand, is set by statute, and can be changed with a simple majority vote and the governor’s signature.

Fann, a Republican who commutes to the Capitol from Prescott, confirmed there’s an effort afoot to increase per diem and said lawmakers will introduce legislation to increase their allowance Thursday, then vote on it Friday before hopefully adjourning the 2019 legislative session.

“Rural lawmakers asked for an increase,” she said. “We’re at a point now where we have members who are literally paying out of their pocket to do their job.”

Sen. Jamescita Peshlakai, D-Window Rock, said any increase in legislative salary or per diem would help lawmakers like her continue to represent her rural district. Peshlakai’s only job is at the Legislature, a nearly five-hour drive from her home, and she said she lives paycheck-to-paycheck while supporting a daughter who is still in high school. While in Phoenix, Peshlakai crashes on her sister’s couch.

“It’s the equivalent to having a person work a single job at a 7/11 or Circle K,” Peshlakai said. “No one can raise a family on that.”

Fann said the request is tied to changes in federal tax law which took effect in 2018. The new federal law did away some write-offs and itemized deductions that rural lawmakers previously used to offset the cost of traveling to Phoenix and finding housing.

Sixty dollars a day doesn’t cover those lodging and meal costs, she said.

Sen. J.D. Mesnard, who saw the petition, said it seems to replicate a bill he sponsored as speaker of the house that tied the mileage rate for lawmakers to the federal rate, now 58 cents per mile. The Chandler Republican said he didn’t sign the petition, but had sympathy for the rural legislators.

“The federal tax reform had a certain impact,” Mesnard said. “I am sensitive to what the rural members have brought up.”

The Arizona Capitol Times requested copies of the petition from the House and Senate, but House attorney Justin Riches and Senate GOP communications director Mike Philipsen said they and other employees have been unable to find it.

Fann said that the final figure in legislation she expects will be introduced today may be less than the $180 amount being circulated. Lawmakers plan to tie their own rates for lodging, travel, meals and incidentals to federal per diem rates, she said.

Whatever the amount they settle on, the budget deal struck by Republican leaders like Fann and Gov. Doug Ducey includes more than enough to cover those new per diem expenses.

The Senate, which has a total budget of $9.5, requested an increase of $3.7 million.

The House, which has a total budget of $13.5, requested a $2.5 million increase.

And the chambers have $1.6 million and $6.5 million in non-lapsing funds squirrelled away, respectively.

Fann said the purpose of the Senate’s $3.7 million increase is paying employees more and making needed renovations to the Senate building. She asked for that money long before she heard about the rural lawmakers’ per diem request, she said.

But now that the per diem bills are being introduced, Fann said the Senate’s budget would be used to pay for any increase if the bills pass.

“I can tell you from the bottom of my heart in all honesty this wasn’t an issue until three weeks ago,” she said. “We have money in there to take care of our people.”

Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, would neither confirm nor deny that he was one of several rural lawmakers circulating the petition. But Cook acknowledged that he has long complained about the low per diem for out-of-county lawmakers, and how it causes the Legislature to lose good people.

Sen. David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, refused to talk about his rumored involvement in the effort to dramatically increase lawmakers’ per diem rates.

“All I’m concentrating on is the budget,” he responded to every question he was asked.

Gowan’s alleged involvement in the effort is significant because in 2016, he was forced to repay the state more than $12,000 after receiving per diem on days he claimed to have worked, but didn’t. Gowan also claimed reimbursements for driving his personal car when he was in fact driving a state vehicle, and he overestimated the distance he drove on trips in his own car.

Cook has long defended the need for a per diem hike, arguing that low compensation forces lawmakers into less-than-ideal living situations, Cook said.

“Let’s go down the list. [Rep.] Becky Nutt from Greenlee County bought a camp trailer [and] is living in a trailer park camping out to represent her district. [Former representative] Drew John from Safford bought a motorhome and is camping out in the motorhome to represent his district. [Former representative] Todd Clodfelter – he bought a camp trailer – [is] living in a park to represent his district. And we want good legislators,” Cook said in October 2018.

In 2018, former representatives Eric Descheenie and Wenona Benally cited their commute, time commitment and low pay as a reason not to seek re-election in Legislative District 7, the largest district in the state.

“There’s a prime example that we are losing a lawmaker – and (Benally’s) a Democrat, but that’s ok, she’s a good lawmaker – because they can’t afford it,” Cook said.

Hank Stephenson contributed to this report.

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