Lawmakers might give themselves a raise soon

JOHN SCHROYER Updated: January 1, 2013 at 12:00 am • Published: January 1, 2013

State lawmakers in the General Assembly are paid a $30,000-a-year salary for their service.
Some say that modest paycheck is an obstacle to representative democracy.

“I’ve personally talked to potential candidates who have decided not to run because of the salary,” said El Paso County Republican Party Chairman Eli Bremer. “You’re really limiting the pool of candidates you can get to run.”

Soon-to-be Senate President John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, was fervent in his agreement. He suggested lawmakers’ salaries should be doubled.

“For the most part, you need to be either independently wealthy, or retired, or have a spouse who can support your family,” said Morse, who doesn’t hold a job outside the Legislature.
“It’s like, average citizens just need not apply.”

Morse said he can work for cheap because he’s single and childless.

While there are few other issues they agree about, Morse and Bremer suggested that to attract the highest-caliber candidates, the state needs to offer a much higher paycheck.
Bremer suggested a $50,000 salary.

“If these people are deciding on multi-billion dollar budgets, I want to get high-quality people to do that,” Bremer said.

The 120-day Colorado legislative session runs from January to May. The other eight months out of the year, legislators are free (for the most part) to work at other jobs. But there are also interim committee meetings, seminars, educational trips, and plenty else to keep lawmakers busy year-round.

Some politicians say the salary is a calculated sacrifice.

Incoming House Minority Leader Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, has a part-time job outside the Legislature — he works for 4th Judicial District Attorney Dan May. His wife, Jennifer, also brings home bacon — she’s an Air Force colonel.

As a party leader, like Morse, Waller works outside of the legislative session. He and his wife aren’t rich. And he has two kids. But still, they makes ends meet.

“The reality is, the pay isn’t good for legislators. Having said that, it’s what I signed up for, and I’m content with that. If it were different, that would be great, but it’s not going to change, and I’m not going to complain about that,” Waller said.

State Rep. Amy Stephens, R-Monument, said she’s in the same boat as Waller. Before she first ran for office in 2006, she called a family meeting with her husband and son to talk about the logistics of a reduced salary. Stephens writes grants for nonprofits when she’s not at the Capitol, though, and is able to pick up work when the session is out.

“It is a sacrifice, but you enter knowing that it is,” Stephens said. “No one’s making money at this job. You do it because you believe in public service.”

Rep.-elect Dan Nordberg, R-Colorado Springs, is a perfect example. He was just elected in November, and is going from a $72,000-a-year salary as a congressional staffer to a lawmaker’s $30,000.

His wife works for School District 49 as a school psychologist.

“When my wife and I decided I’d run, we did so knowing that this was about service and not compensation.  We made a commitment, both personally and financially, to make it work,” Nordberg said in an email. “We’ve done so primarily by doing what our government should be doing, cutting our budget to live within our means.”

Critics, though, say the low-salary leads to wealthy lawmakers, those who can afford to take the job.

“That’s not a good cross-section of society, that demographic of retired people, or people with two-earner families, or people who are independently wealthy,” said Rep. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, who is a 65-year-old attorney.

“It would be better for society if legislators could earn a sufficient amount to raise a family.”

The question of state officials’ salaries may be raised during the 2013 legislative session, and from an unexpected source — Republican state Attorney General John Suthers.

Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, said that in early December, Suthers advocated  raises for Colorado district attorneys and top state officers, including the governor, the lieutenant governor, the secretary of state, the state treasurer, and the attorney general (Suthers himself is term-limited).

Lambert said Suthers told the Joint Budget Committee lawmakers should seriously consider upping the salaries.

“If they’re going to be taking a look at government salaries, legislative salaries will probably come up along with all the others,” said Lambert, who sits on the JBC.

Contact John Schroyer: 476-4825
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