Veto kills pay hike opposed by Chandler lawmakers - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

Veto kills pay hike opposed by Chandler lawmakers

June 13th, 2019 development
Veto kills pay hike opposed by Chandler lawmakers

By Howard Fischer, Capitol Media Services

Arizona lawmakers won’t be getting a sharp increase in their living allowances, at least not this year — and not next year, either.

But legislators representing Chandler couldn’t care less because the city’s Democrat and Republican delegation all voted against it in the first place.

Gov. Doug Ducey last week vetoed legislation which would have given lawmakers living outside of Maricopa County $190 a day, seven days a week, for the time the Legislature is in session. That is more than triple the current $60 figure set in law.

Among those who voted no last month were Senators J.D. Mesnard of Chandler, a Republican, and Sean Bowie of Ahwatukee, a Democrat. Also voting against it were Republican Rep. Jeff Weninger and Democratic Reps. Jennifer Jermaine of Chandler and Mitzi Epstein of Tempe.

All six lawmakers’ districts include portions of Chandler.

Ducey, in his veto message, said he agreed with supporters that out-county lawmakers need more money because  they have to find lodging during the legislative session.

That can mean a hotel. But for many legislators it has meant having to rent — or buy housing in the Phoenix area, as sessions can and have run for five or six months and it is difficult to get a half-year lease.

“Arizona is the sixth largest state in terms of land area,’’ the governor wrote. “So, for rural legislators and those representing areas outside of Maricopa County, there is a strong case to be made for ensuring we are appropriately recognizing what is required for them to be here at the state Capitol in Phoenix during session.’’

But the governor clearly was turned off by the fact that the bill that reached his desk also boosted the daily allowance collected by lawmakers who live in Maricopa County from $35 a day to $92.50. These are lawmakers who can go home every night and have no need for local lodging.

Ducey had another objection to the bill: It would have taken effect later this year, meaning that the lawmakers who voted for it would be the ones who benefit.

“Any change in the per diem rate should also be prospective, and apply to the next Legislature, which will be sworn in on Jan. 11, 2021, following the 2020 election,’’ the governor wrote to legislative leaders. “I am open to working with legislators on such a change next session.’’

The veto — and the governor’s conclusion that Maricopa County lawmakers don’t deserve an allowance increase — annoyed Sen. David Livingston, R-Peoria. He defended the provision.

“It’s part of the overall compensation package,’’ Livingston said, even though it’s listed in statute as a “subsistence allowance.’’

Livingston also suggested that the Republican governor may have done himself harm with the Legislature.

“He could have done something like this that would have benefited the 90 members, that would have made working relationships better,’’ the Peoria lawmaker said. “This makes it more strained.’’

Rep. Noel Campbell, R-Prescott, who sponsored one of the versions of the measure, had no immediate comment.

During floor debate, Campbell, one of those out-county lawmakers, called the boost in the allowance “the right thing to do.’’

“We’re only asking to be reimbursed for our expenses,’’ he said.

But it wasn’t just Ducey who was hesitant about increasing the $35-a-day allowance to in-county lawmakers, those who do not need a Phoenix apartment.

That allowance is paid for every day the Legislature is “in session.’’ That includes Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays when lawmakers generally do not meet.

And legislators even get reimbursed for the mileage between their homes and the Capitol for every day there is an actual session.

Among the foes of the change was Rep. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, who said his driving distance to the Capitol was such that he didn’t need to be paid $92.50 a day.

Kern also questioned the “optics’’ of lawmakers approving a sharp increase in their allowance and doing so during the last days of the session.

The political risk of voting for a sharp increase in allowance did not escape Rep. Bob Thorpe, R-Flagstaff. But he urged colleagues to ignore that possibility.

“Let’s rip off the Band-Aid,’’ he said.

“Let’s ignore the folks that will beat us up over it, ‘cause it will go away,’’ Thorpe argued. “This will be forgotten.”

Livingston, for his part, said he’s not concerned about the political fallout of being a Maricopa County lawmaker seeking to boost his allowance.

“I’m very strong in my district,’’ he said.

“I go to a lot of things in my district,’’ Livingston continued. “So I figured I can take the arrows easier than anybody else.’’

Campbell had urged unanimous support, saying it would “give (political) cover to anybody who has questions about it…and threaten us with retaliation because we voted to raise our per diem rate.’’

He didn’t get his wish.

The Senate vote was 22-7. There was even more doubt in the House where 23 of the 60 members voted against it.

Livingston also said there’s another reason that lawmakers, both in- and out-county, need a bump in their allowance: the Tax Cut and Jobs Act signed in late 2017 by President Donald Trump.

On one hand, that law cut tax rates and increased the standard deduction. But it also repealed a section of the tax code that, until this year, gave employees a deduction for the amount of out-of-pocket expenses they incurred that were not reimbursed by their employer.

The net result, said Livingston, is that lawmakers whose actual expenses exceed the current per diem rates no longer can deduct the difference from their adjusted income in computing their federal and state taxes.

During the debate on the bill last month, Rep. Aaron Lieberman, D-Phoenix, questioned the idea of lawmakers approving more money for themselves even when they refused just last week to restore all of the funds that have been cut during the recession in state aid to public schools.

The whole idea of the vote — particularly on what is shaping up to be the last day of the legislative session — drew raised eyebrows from teachers who have been at the Capitol monitoring the votes on spending bills.

“I can’t get beyond the irony of your plight and how it is so incredibly parallel to what is going on with teachers,’’ testified Christine Marsh. She was named the 2016 teacher of the year and was one of the prime proponents of higher pay for educators.

Marsh pointed out that proponents of the allowance hike, like Rep. Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, have said the legislators’ $24,000 annual salary — coupled with the lack of adequate reimbursement — has resulted in few people telling her they are interested in running for the Legislature.

“And yet that, of course, is what teachers are facing,’’ Marsh said.

She said lawmakers voting to hike their expenses should be ready for other parallels, like people telling them they knew what the job paid when they took it and they shouldn’t complain about the pay.

“That’s what we hear,’’ Marsh said. “And it’s offensive and not very cool.’’

Storm Gerlock had her own take on the move.

“I empathize and can find similarities with what is being said about the challenges of not being adequately compensated for the work that is being done,’’ she told lawmakers. “As an education support professional who is paid hourly, I know the struggles of working two jobs and still not making a living wage.’’

Rep. Bret Roberts, R-Maricopa, argued that this is different, as the allowance for lawmakers comes out of the House and Senate budgets, not the state general fund which is where the dollars are allocated for teacher pay raises. That, however, drew a verbal slap from Fernandez who pointed out that all of the cash, whether for teacher salaries or legislative payments, comes from the same pocket of tax dollars.

Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, said that, under different circumstances, she might have opposed the hike in allowance. But she pointed out that lawmakers last year approved a 9 percent increase in the average pay for teachers, with another 5 percent in the budget for this coming school year and 5 percent more earmarked for the following year.

“Having done that in the past year and the past days, I think this is appropriate,’’ Udall said.

Identical language was approved last week in the Senate Appropriations Committee, with both measures now awaiting full votes in their respective chambers.

Nothing in the measure affects the $24,000 salary, as that can be raised only with voter approval. That last occurred in 1998; subsequent ballot measures for a salary increase have been defeated.

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