Senators approved a $35-a-day pay raise for themselves Wednesday, but it's unclear if House members will go along.

It's the first pay raise for the part-time legislators in more than seven years and much needed, a number of senators said.Unfortunately, most Utahns don't agree. The latest Deseret News/KSL-TV poll shows that only 25 percent of Utahns favor the $35-a-day pay raise. Pollster Dan Jones & Associates found that 72 percent oppose the raise, while 3 percent had no opinion.

Senate Republican leaders suggested an alternative to the direct pay raise - which would move the daily pay from $65 a day to $100 a day. They'd like to increase the current $25 a day expense check to $50 a day. Increasing the expense check has a tax advantage: lawmakers wouldn't have to pay income taxes on the extra $25-a-day expense raise like they would on the $35-a-day salary raise.

Democratic senators said raising their expenses "is a backdoor pay raise" and should be avoided.

Legislators get their salary, daily expenses and mileage payments for each day of the 45-day general session, for the once-a-month interim meetings and for any special meetings or special sessions during the year.

Rank-and-file senators rejected their leaders' expense-check alternative, voting 17-10, with two absent, for the $35-a-day salary raise. Senators passed the measure again Wednesday 16-12 - one senator was absent - and sent it onto the House.

It's future there is uncertain. Nineteen House Republicans voted in their caucus Tuesday to raise their daily expenses by $25 - the Senate leadership plan. They didn't vote on the straight pay raise.

Sen. Rex Black, D-Salt Lake, sponsored the $35-a-day pay raise bill. He says the pay raise is overdue. "It's a fair increase - what (the Legislative Compensation) Commission recommended," Black said. The raise takes effect July 1 and would cost $277,100 a year for the 104 House and Senate members. Gov. Norm Bangerter, a former speaker of the House, supports the pay raise and has included the $277,100 in his recommended budget.

Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said he has no arguments against raising the pay, but tried to amend the bill so the raises would take effect only after the next legislative elections. "That way, the voters would get a chance to speak on the raises," he said.

But Republican and Democratic senators voted down that amendment, opting instead for an immediate pay raise.

"Sixty-five dollars a day is an insult," said Sen. Scott Howell, D-Salt Lake. Going to $100 a day may allow more people to afford serving in the Legislature, he added.

"Look at us," said Sen. Karen Shepherd, D-Salt Lake. "Look at our age (most senators are over 50). Look at our affluence (there are several millionaires in the Senate and most are well-to-do). We're here because we can afford to be here." She said there isn't a cross section of Utah society in the Senate because many Utahns can't afford to run or serve in the body.

Indeed, a number of the senators provided healthy contributions to their own campaigns this past year, not to mention their ability to carry themselves financially during the session. Sen. Robert Steiner, D-Salt Lake, and his family donated $20,000 to his own campaign, while Sen. Ronald Ockey, R-Salt Lake, donated $12,000 to his own campaign. Several other senators donated less to their campaigns, in the $4,000 to $5,000 range.

Sen. Dixie Leavitt, R-Cedar City, a wealthy insurance agency owner, said he could serve for free. But he remembers a "fine, good" House member in the 1970s who had to leave the Legislature because he couldn't afford it any longer.

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Deseret News/KSL-TV Poll

Would you favor or oppose state lawmakers receiving a $35 per day pay raise this year? (Currently they make $65 per day during the 45-day session.)

Favor 25%

Oppose 72%

Don't know 3%