Gov. Doug Ducey on Friday vetoed a bill that would have more than tripled daily allowances for some lawmakers.
In his note accompanying the veto, Ducey said there “is a strong case to be made” for raising per diem rates for lawmakers representing areas outside of Maricopa County, but that any changes to the allowances should take effect after the 2020 election.
Late in the legislative session, lawmakers in the House and Senate passed a bipartisan bill that would have greatly increased the daily allowances for both rural and in-county lawmakers. Even some who voted against it said they supported the concept, just not the perception of paying themselves more.
Rural lawmakers, in particular, talked about how they struggled to afford living in Phoenix during the session. Sen. Jamescita Peshlakai, D-Window Rock, said that lawmakers from her district, the largest in the state, often don’t run for re-election because of the toll the job and travel take on them.
“We have a nice title, but we can’t eat or feed our children the title of senator or representative,” Peshlakai said.
Rural lawmakers now receive $60 in per diem, and Maricopa County lawmakers receive $35. After the 120th day of session, that amount falls to $20 for rural lawmakers and $10 for in-county legislators. They also make a $24,000 annual salary and are reimbursed for travel to and from the Capitol or on official business.
Voters must approve any increases to lawmakers’ salaries, and they routinely reject them. Since 1972, voters have seen 18 ballot measures asking for legislative raises, but they only approved two. Increasing per diem, on the other hand, requires only a majority vote and a signature from the governor.
The bill vetoed by Ducey would have tied per diem rates to the annual average per diem set by the Government Services Administration for federal employees. Lawmakers who live outside of Maricopa County would receive the full federal per diem for the first 120 days of session, while in-county legislators would get half that amount. After 120 days, the amount they would be paid would be sliced in half.
Using 2019 federal per diem rates, that would work out to $185 for rural lawmakers and $94.50 for Maricopa County legislators would. After 120 days, rural lawmakers would get $94.50 and in-county lawmakers would receive $47.25.
Sen. Rick Gray, R-Sun City, said that the current difference between rural and in-county lawmakers’ per diem allotments doesn’t reflect the cost of living in Phoenix.
“Motel 6 will keep the light on for you, but they will not give you a room for $25 a day,” Gray said.
He and other supporters of the bill also said changes to federal tax law that took effect in 2018 further increased costs for lawmakers. The new federal law eliminated some write-offs and itemized deductions that lawmakers had been able to use.
Sen. Juan Mendez, one of the seven senators who voted against the per diem increase, said the changes to federal tax law only affected already-wealthy lawmakers who itemize their deductions.
“I feel like it’s only the rich members who were able to write off their expenses,” the Tempe Democrat said. “I don’t think I’ve ever made enough money to itemize my taxes, so I definitely can’t sympathize there.”
Other lawmakers who opposed the increase said they just didn’t like the optics. Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, said lawmakers voting to increase their per diems sends the wrong message to other state employees who also make sacrifices to do their jobs.
“All of those employees who have been sacrificing for years to serve the people of the state of Arizona, what message are we sending them when we are voting for ourselves first and them second?” he asked during debate on the Senate floor. “I can’t with good conscience go back to my community, go back to my district and tell them I voted for a bill that would increase my pay before I voted to increase their pay.”
And others, including Rep. Joanne Osborne, R-Goodyear, were troubled by the inclusion of Maricopa County.
“For the rural legislators that are here, I completely support you, but I can’t support it for myself because it doesn’t make sense,” she said. “ If there had been a mileage qualifier on this bill, I would have been all on board, but there’s not.”
Ducey did not specifically say in his veto letter that he would oppose any increase for Maricopa County lawmakers, but he said he was interested in working with the Legislature next session to recognize what it takes for rural lawmakers to be at the Capitol.