With freebies banned, new bill would give some lawmakers a raise
DENVER Laws that bar Colorado legislators from accepting free meals from lobbyists and cash donations for their office expenses touched off a debate Wednesday over whether the state should give senators and representatives a raise.Under a new bipartisan bill, lawmakers from outside the Denver area could get an extra $50 a day for meals and living expenses during the four-month legislative session.Sponsor Sen. Jack Taylor, R-Steamboat Springs, said the current $99 per diem isn’t enough to cover expenses for lawmakers who spend the week in Denver.In previous sessions, out-of-town lawmakers could cut their living costs by having meals with lobbyists or at evening receptions sponsored by trade organizations and nonprofit groups, but most of those opportunities disappeared under Amendment 41, the ethics law approved by voters in November.Lawmakers also used to be able to take cash donations to help defray costs not picked up by the state, including hotel stays at overnight meetings out of their district or help paying for an aide in their office. That ended last year when they passed a law banning all cash gifts.Lawmakers from the Denver area get $45 a day for expenses and that wouldn’t change under the bill, which is co-sponsored by Rep. Kathleen Curry, D-Gunnison. The per diem is in addition to the $30,000 a year all lawmakers are paid, a salary that’s been in effect for the past eight years.Taylor called the bill “a moderate step” to address the compensation problem but said it won’t solve it.He said he also spends about $10,000 of his own money the rest of the year traveling to meetings around the Western Slope. Those meetings are necessary for him to represent his district but the travel isn’t reimbursed by the state, he said.On trips not covered by the state, he said, he tries to avoid staying overnight in hotels by pulling over and taking naps in his pickup.Sen. Ron Tupa, D-Boulder, who sponsored last year’s bill barring cash donations for office expenses, said he supports giving lawmakers a stipend to run their offices. Currently, Tupa said, the state doesn’t pay for lawmakers’ e-mail and they can hire only a part-time aide for 20 hours a week.But Tupa said he doesn’t support increasing what lawmakers are paid for expenses because some could use it to pad their salaries. He said lawmakers can still do their jobs without free lunches.”There have always been two types of legislators – those who were wined and dined and those who weren’t, and we were never the worse for it,” Tupa said.Sen. Jim Isgar, D-Hesperus, said finding an apartment to rent for four months is difficult, so many lawmakers end up living in hotels, paying about $80 a night in the nearby Warwick Hotel – taking up most of their per diem.Isgar, who rents an apartment, said he used to go to two or three evening receptions last year and see people from his district at each of them. He said he still meets with them when they visit the Capitol.”You still go out. It just costs you a lot more now,” he said.Backers of Amendment 41 said such receptions are still allowed under the bill but many have been canceled with organizers fearing lawmakers wouldn’t show up.
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