First more pay, now more office space: the excesses of Colorado lawmakers
This month, Republican and Democratic leaders in the Colorado Legislature introduced House Bill 1348 to authorize a possible move of the Legislature’s service staff from the state Capitol to a state office building across Colfax Avenue. The bill also allows the potential remodel the Capitol to give all 35 senators and all 65 representatives their own offices. It passed both houses this week.
Currently legislators share offices, just as they have for decades.
HB 1348 is only part of the story. Earlier this legislative session, lawmakers passed House Bill 1301, which authorized a 22 percent increase in the amount legislators could bill the taxpayers for their expenses.
A state senator and state representative earn $30,000 for the 120-day legislative session (January to May) and are allowed to claim up to $18,000 in expenses, known as per diem. Reimbursement for mileage is billed separately.
After HB 1301 takes effect, lawmakers will be able to claim almost $22,000 to offset living expenses associated with the job. A rural legislator could receive $52,000 for 120 days worth of work. Not bad for a part-time job.
U.S. senators and representatives earn $174,000 per year, but their legislative jobs are considered full-time.
Using their legislative authority, it looks like the Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature have agreed to tap the public purse for their own financial gain.
During this country’s Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin suggested public service should be voluntary and that only travel and living expenses should be paid, so that a legislator would be in no worse position financially due to public service. Instead, both members of Congress and state lawmakers draw salaries.
As the Colorado and national economies have suffered through this recession and the official unemployment rate hovers around 9 percent, many families have been struggling to keep up with their mortgages and deal with increases in the cost of living and gas prices. Despite the problems faced by their constituents in these tough times, however, Colorado’s legislators gave lawmakers who live outside the Denver area a 22 percent increase in expenses.
The audacity of this bipartisan spending spree continues. HB 1348 allows a legislative committee to consider the remodel of the Capitol to give every House and Senate member his or her own, private office.
For the majority of Colorado’s history, the only working space a legislator had was his or her desk on either the House or Senate floor. At one time, the entire Colorado state bureaucracy was housed in the Capitol building.
As the bureaucracy has grown, most state agencies have left the Capitol, to occupy elegant, white marble buildings or lease space in other buildings that are located all around Denver.
At the beginning of this legislative session, the Republicans doubled the amount a legislative aide is paid (Democrats raised their staff’s salary two years ago).
Can Colorado afford such reckless spending in a time of such economic uncertainty?
In 2005, when I was an aide at the Capitol, the pay was low, legislators shared offices, food was provided by the lobbyists and the total state budget was $12 billion.
Seven years later, the pay has doubled for staff, legislators voted themselves a per-diem raise, remodelling to create private offices is being considered by both parties, and Amendment 41 nixed the coffee and bagels from lobbyists.
Oh, and the state budget has grown to nearly $20 billion.
Matt Soper served as a legislative aide to former state Sen. Ron Teck of Grand Junction. He is a Colorado Mesa University alumnus and was recently elected, at age 27, to the Orchard City Board of Trustees.