Few things are more unpopular with voters than a pay raise for lawmakers, whether in Congress or the Legislature - especially since elected officials are saddled with poor images held by a restless and impatient public. Some disgruntled citizens would support a pay cut.
So it's no surprise that the latest Deseret News/KSL-TV poll shows 72 percent of Utahns are against a proposed $35-a-day raise for members of the Legislature. Only 25 percent approve of the idea.Despite those strong feelings, the Utah Senate this week voted in favor of the pay hike. The raise would boost pay from the present $65 a day to $100 per day. Lawmakers also get mileage and $25 a day for expenses such as meals and housing. But before any barrage of criticism reaches intense proportions, Utahns should consider a few facts.
First, seven years have passed since legislators have had any kind of pay hike. Few people in private business could say the same. During those years, inflation has eaten away at the value of lawmakers' salaries.
Second, the $100-per-day salary would not be paid all year. It covers only the annual 45-day legislative session; the once-a-month interim meetings, usually lasting only a single day; and any special sessions. That amounts to little more than $5,000 a year - which is hardly exorbitant.
Third, the Legislature is a part-time body of private citizens who are not professional politicians. While some are well-to-do, others must take time away from their jobs or businesses to fulfill their legislative duties, sometimes at significant personal sacrifice.
Fourth, many legislators come from areas away from Salt Lake City,and the expense allowance of $25 a day hardly covers housing and meals. Lawmakers have to make up any difference themselves. If the personal cost is too high, many able people will simply not consider service in the Legislature and it will become the private preserve of the wealthy.
Fifth, the pay raise amount did not simply materialize out of thin air. The $35 figure was recommended after study by a Legislative Compensation Commission, an independent group that does not have any legislators as members.
Finally, Utah lawmakers are relatively poorly paid. A survey showed that Utah pay scales for legislators ranked sixth out of eight Western states and 46th among all 50 states.
The Senate-approved measure must now go to the Utah House, where members are considering a different approach - doubling the $25 expense allowance to $50. That has the advantage of being tax-free.
It might be more politically palatable to make any raise effective after the next election, instead of immediately as in the Senate measure. Yet now, or a year from now, a pay hike probably will remain unpopular. And it will remain long overdue.