State lawmakers are moving to pave the way to more than double their living allowance -- and do it in the way to avoid ever having to vote on the potentially embarrassing issue again.
A measure being crafted a Southern Arizona legislator would scrap the current per diem payment of $35 a day for lawmakers living within 50 miles of the Capitol and $60 for everyone else. Various efforts over the past two decades to vote to boost that have fallen short.
The measure, however, would not set a new figure, instead putting in its place a formula tied to the allowance the federal government provides for travel for its employees.
Out-of-area legislators would get the full rate, about $163 a day now. But even those closer to the Capitol would automatically be entitled to 60 percent of that figure, or close to $98.
And they would get that seven days a week for every day the Legislature is in session, even though lawmakers usually only meet four days a week at the beginning of every year. Lawmakers also could get allowances for coming to the Capitol for special meetings or other official business.
Barring any last-minute hitches, the measure should sail through the House. Rep. David Stevens, R-Sierra Vista, claims to already have 45 of the 60 House members, all of whom would be affected, signed on in support.
Stevens now is lining up votes among senators.
"It's not a salary increase,'' he said of lawmakers, whose last pay hike, to $24,000, was approved by voters in 1998. "It's just a living expense.''
There is broad bipartisan consensus that the legislators who have to find lodging in Phoenix during the session need more than the $60 a day.
"I think the biggest problem is the out-of-county people,'' said House Minority Leader Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix.
But that still leaves the question of whether lawmakers who get to go home each night should get paid $98 a day -- or even $35 -- for driving to their own jobs.
Campbell said that, personally, he does not need more than $35 a day for coming to the Capitol. "And I don't hear many complaints from in-county (lawmakers).''
Rep. Lela Alston, D-Phoenix, who has been in the Legislature off-and-on since 1977, said the cleaner way of dealing with the issue would be to increase the pay. That, however, requires voter approval. And recent proposals to boost it to $36,000 or even $30,000 have gone down to defeat.
"Our reputation is not sterling with the voters,'' Alston said. But she called the proposal "a legitimate request for the people who have to have homes in two locations.''
Rep. John Allen, R-Scottsdale, agreed with Alston's assessment that the real issue is that $24,000 salary.
"You wish that we could convince the public that we're worth it,'' he said. But since that has not happened, Allen said there needs to be a recognition of the costs.
"This is an economic hardship job,'' he said.
Rep. Eric Meyer, D-Paradise Valley, also questioned why a plan would provide an allowance increase for all legislators and not just those who have to rent apartments or homes during the session.
"What I receive is plenty for me,'' he said.
But Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Scottsdale, said some increase for local lawmakers is appropriate, though he said what Stevens is proposing is "a little bit higher than I would have suggested.''
Kavanagh said it's also wrong to look at the allowance as simply paying local lawmakers to drive to the Capitol.
"Year round we have expenses,'' he said.
"Our constituents expect us to go to their evening events, to go to their evening meetings, to communicate with them,'' Kavanagh said. "So, overall, it's not cheap being a legislator, although the reimbursement unfortunately is cheap.''
House Speaker Andy Tobin, R-Paulden, is one of the out-of-area legislators who would get the bigger hike. But Tobin, while acknowledging the increasing costs of everything from rents to gasoline to himself and others, was less than sympathetic to the plan.
"I just question whether this is the right time to do that,'' he said. Anyway, he said, there's no evidence that the current formula is creating a problem.
"We didn't have any shortage of candidates running in November,'' Tobin said. "And everybody knew what the rules were.''
Rep. Bruce Wheeler, D-Tucson, conceded the point.
"And I would run again even if this didn't pass,'' he said. "But I think it's basically an issue of fairness, of fair compensation.''
Stevens said he crafted the bill as an all-or-nothing measure. That means a single vote to increase both the local and out-of-area allowances rather than letting legislators vote separately on the merits of each.
Sen. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, said that, at least for legislators from outside the Phoenix area, the move makes sense.
"I don't think it's unreasonable,'' said Sen. Don Shooter, R-Yuma.
"Rents and lodging is more expensive,'' he said. "I'm sure food's more expensive.''
Shooter said he figures being a legislator costs him $500 a week. But that includes not just out-of-pocket expenses but also what he called "opportunity costs of what I should be doing instead of what I'm doing.''
"I don't know that we have to get rich or even make a decent living,'' Shooter said. "But I don't know that we should be required to contribute our own money to taking the job.''