March 2012

Hypocrisy in office

When State Sen. Ellen Roberts and State Rep. J. Paul Brown spoke at a League of Women Voters gathering Feb. 25 in Cortez, they talked a great deal about the budget woes facing the state.

There’s not enough money for K-12 schools, much less higher education, they said. Not enough to fix up the deteriorating Capitol building. Not enough to do much of anything.

But apparently there is enough to give themselves a raise.

Oh, it’s not a raise in their base salary of $30,000. If it were, they’d have to be taxed on it. No, this is a raise in the per-diem pay for rural legislators – from $150 a day to $183.

Roberts, who told one questioner after the Feb. 25 forum that she didn’t know enough about the measure to decide whether she would vote it, was quick to jump on board to approve it Feb. 29 when the bill to set aside funds for the pay increase came before the state Senate, which gave it a 21-13 thumbs-up. Brown had already voted in favor of the measure in the House, where it passed 34-28.

Rep. Don Coram, who represents part of Montezuma County, also voted in favor.

Roberts told the Durango Herald that she worried that, without the hike, only the “independently wealthy” would be able to serve. Other lawmakers said that they work 12 months out of the year, that they deserve the raise, and that without it you might not get good people in office. (The gist, of course, was that people like them might not want to run.)

But a former representative from Cortez, Mark Larson, weighed in against the pay boost. “That’s absurd. When I was in the Legislature, I made money on the per diem, and that was at $99 a day,” Larson told the Herald.

Let’s get real for a minute. No one can run for the legislature who doesn’t already have better assets than the average Joe. And those folks who are in office today knew what they were getting into when they chose to run. It’s a little late for them to be whining about how impoverished the job is making them.

Yes, they have to travel a great deal, but travel expenses, including a weekly round trip home and all travel for attending conferences and conducting legislative business, are reimbursed outside of the per-diem pay.

At the Cortez forum, Roberts spoke about how hard the “great recession” has hit working folks. It’s difficult to imagine how she, or any of the other ostensible fiscal conservatives in the legislature, can on the one hand say they care about people’s economic suffering, and on the other justify raising their per-diem reimbursement by 22 percent at a time when citizens are struggling to get by and the state budget is stretched beyond belief.

Apparently they believe it’s fine for public school teachers to go without raises for years and dip into their own pockets for supplies, just so long as legislators don’t have to brown-bag their lunches or stay in a studio apartment.

Lawmakers can claim per diem every day of the 120-day session if they choose. At the old rate, that amounts to as much as $18,000 beyond their salary, for four months of the year. (At the new rate, it would be $21,960, untaxed.) It’s difficult to see how anyone couldn’t feed and house himself for that amount. There are folks in Denver and elsewhere, we guarantee, who are expected to get by on much less than $4,500 a month for food and dwelling expenses. Yet our legislators talk as if they were close to applying for food stamps.

What hypocrites. This is not the time for politicians to get a pay raise. This vote alone is reason enough to throw Roberts, Coram and Brown out of office.