Historically, lawmakers were paid for the whole 45-day session at the start. But those checks were held so the new, transparent process can be implemented – assuming the craggy Senate goes along with the House’s demands.
Overall, the change is not a direct pay raise. Lawmakers can’t set that pay, it is done by a special citizen Legislative Compensation Commission.
However, the changes will cost taxpayers more money, about $150,000 a year. The total legislative compensation runs around $2 million a year.
Some interesting changes are in store, including:
-- House members, who used to pay for their own caucus lunches (or brown bag them) will get their caucus lunches paid for by taxpayers. It will be up to each of the 75 representatives to decide for themselves whether they put in for caucus lunch reimbursements.
-- The Senate will continue it’s practice of allowing special interest groups to pay for the 29 senators’ caucus lunches, and not follow the House’s lead.
Technically, senators contribute to what’s called the Third House – a cash slush fund used for a variety of purposes, including paying for caucus lunches. So when a caucus lunch sponsor isn’t signed up, then senators are buying their own lunches.
But the regularly-scheduled Tuesday and Thursday caucus lunches during the 45-day general session are usually “sponsored,” and those paying for the lunch get to present their cause to the separately-meeting Republican and Democratic Senate caucuses at the start of their two-hour caucus meetings.
The House caucuses gave up lobbyists buying their caucus lunches some years ago.
-- If the legislators are on official state business, they can charge a hotel room or be reimbursed for their meals, that includes during the general session, interim days or special session days.
This is not much of a change, as they could ask for such reimbursements before.
However, all legislators used to be paid $50 a day for a hotel stay, whether they used a hotel or not during legislative meetings. Rural lawmakers, of course, often had to spend that money for hotel rooms, while Wasatch Front legislators got to pocket it, since they stayed at home.
It was that disparity that’s behind HJR6.
A Wasatch Front lawmaker may still stay in a hotel under the new rules and be reimbursed for it, but that expense will show up on their public, individual pay reimbursements.
As House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, told her caucus, if a representative wants to drive 10 miles from his Holladay house and stay at a hotel, he can justify that to the media and constituents for such a use of taxpayer money.
-- Gone will be the per diem cash payments. Those stood at $130 per day, were reduced by legislators to $117 a day during the Great Recession and remains there.
While some may question why legislators should get a “free” caucus lunch (usually held on Tuesdays and Thursdays during the general session, interim days and special session days), there are some good reasons for the change.
House GOP leaders sometimes complained that a few of their members were missing caucus lunches, where often important issues are discussed and position votes taken, to travel downtown and eat with lobbyists or others.
On some occasions the House GOP caucus would have only 40 or 45 members attending. Since it takes 38 votes to pass anything in the House, leaders couldn’t get a good count on whether an issue/bill/budget item would pass on the floor – because so many of their Republican colleagues weren’t at the caucus. The tardy representatives also missed out on the reasons leaders wanted their support for this or that issue, leading to a more awkward process in legislation.
Now, hopefully, more will attend the caucus lunch, since it will be free if the legislator goes through the process of paying for the lunch and then putting in a receipt to be reimbursed for it.
Lockhart said no outside meal will be reimbursed on a caucus day – “Don’t go down to the Crown Burger on caucus day and expect to be reimbursed for it; you won’t be.”
Lockhart told a special caucus meeting Tuesday to discuss HJR6, which passed the whole House 70-4 and now goes to the Senate, that with the heightened transparency and public scrutiny it will be wise to use meal and/or hotel reimbursements only as really needed.
A House Democrat was severely criticized in her 2012 re-election campaign by a challenging Republican over her legislative pay/expenses.
Unsaid Tuesday is that it’s likely an incumbent lawmaker’s reimbursement account will be examined by his political opponents – and he will be called to justify all his expenses at re-election time.
Both the meal and hotel top reimbursement levels are set in state law, the same rates as for executive and judicial branch employees now.
If a legislator wants to stay in the presidential hotel suite, he may, but will only get reimbursed like any other state employee at the set hotel rate.
Also, House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Washington Terrace, told UtahPolicy that no lawmaker will be reimbursed if he stays in a hotel room in an entity that he has ownership in.
In the past, there have been a few lawmakers that have businesses that own hotels.
Only legitimate, readable hotel receipts will be honored and reimbursed, said Dee.
For some time, the citizen Legislative Compensation Commission has recommended that legislators get a flat salary, not a per day salary as is now the case.
But that doesn’t change under HJR6. Legislators will continue to be paid by the day for the 45-day session, interim study days, task force meetings or other committee hearings approved by House and Senate leadership.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, told reporters that senators want to keep the per day pay rate.
It’s generally known that the 29-member Senate attends more meetings during the year than the 75-member House. And so if there were a flat yearly salary, senators would be taking a pay cut. And they won’t go along with that.
“We want to make sure everyone is attending their meetings,” said Niederhauser. And keeping the per day salary – where you have to be present and sign a roll -- will help with that.
The Legislature as a body no long travels the state in the summer, visiting different locales and learning about their issues. That travel was stopped as the Great Recession approached.
Those trips were historically paid for by the local governments/colleges/chambers of commerce and so on, and Utah taxpayers would not be charged. It is unclear how the new legislative reimbursement process would fit into such travels, should they ever resume.
One interesting side note: HJR6 sets up a new reimbursement committee that will look at lawmakers’ reimbursements and make decisions on them (it’s anticipated individual receipt slips won’t be poured over, but the committee make general policy).
That membership is the Senate president, House speaker, majority leaders in the House and Senate, and minority leaders in the House and Senate.
Thus, the committee will be 4-2 Republican. That is different than the other committees which deal with legislative management.
The Legislative Management Committee has the same number of majority and minority members, although the Republicans chair it.
Same with the Ethics Committees of the House and Senate, same number of majority and minority members, majority chairs them.
Thus, it would be possible for the majority GOP leadership to make a decision on legislative reimbursement and push it though with the Democratic leaders opposing it.
You can read the House’s GOP partisan blog on HJR6 here. It explains and summarizes the bill and changes that are coming.
Finally, legislators can refuse any reimbursement, or can ask to be paid for part of a receipt, but not all of it.
If a legislator has an official meal with others, only his meal will be paid for. If he wants to treat his guests, it comes out of his pocket, leaders said.
Mileage for lawmakers remains unchanged under the new policy. That “mileage” for distant legislators can include an airplane ticket – like from St. George to Salt Lake City -- if that is approved by leadership.