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Lawmakers fast-tracking bill to set higher daily salary

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 29 2013 6:10 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers are on a fast track to boost their daily pay from $117 to $273 while at the same time attempting to make it clearer to the public who is claiming meals and hotel rooms during the session.

Currently, lawmakers are paid $117 each day they are in session or attending interim and other official meetings, plus $95 for lodging and $61 for meals, even though lawmakers from the Wasatch Front seldom incur those costs.

Under the proposed change to House and Senate rules, every lawmaker would receive that same amount, and those who do stay overnight in a hotel and buy meals would be able to seek reimbursement for up to an additional $156.

"This is the right thing to do," the sponsor of HJR6, House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, said before the resolution passed in the House 70-4. He said the resolution, which passed the House last year but stalled in the Senate, will provide more transparency.

"We will have an audit trail on every expense," Dee said. Calling the resolution a "common sense" measure, he said lawmakers can turn down all or part of the compensation. "We are not forcing anyone to do anything."

Rep. Jack Draxler, R-North Logan, said he has used the hotel and meal money to cover the costs of staying in Salt Lake City during the 45-day session since he was first elected to the Legislature in 2006.

"Our constituents need to understand what our salary is and what our legislative expenses are," Draxler said. "Until now, that hasn't been clear."

During a House GOP caucus before the vote, Dee said reimbursements for hotel and meal expenses will have to be approved by legislative leaders. House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, suggested lawmakers think twice about asking for unnecessary reimbursements.

"I'm sure the press would be glad to write a story about it because it's all public record," Lockhart said, especially for those lawmakers who live close to the Capitol. "You have to decide yourself if that's something you want to take on."

The price tag for the change, recommended by the independent Utah Legislative Compensation Commission, is expected to be $150,000 annually.

"We think it's a small price to pay for that transparency," Dee said.

The Senate Rules Committee will hold a hearing on the resolution at 5 p.m. Wednesday. Dee said he hopes the measure can be approved by the Senate and take effect on Saturday.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said he was unsure why the matter was not addressed by the Senate in 2012.

"Last year, our (GOP) caucus was in favor of the bill, so we're anxious to have it come over and address it through our process," Niederhauser said.

Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, said the issue of legislative compensation came up during last year's legislative races. 

"We're trying to fix a problem. I think we've been asked by the media to do this. We've been asked by the public," Stevenson said. "It's time to fix the problem."

Contributing: Marjorie Cortez

E-mail: lisa@desnews.com

Twitter: dnewspolitics

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