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Arizona voters deciding whether lawmakers get first raise since 1998

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PHOENIX – During his 12 years as a state lawmaker, Sen. Steve Gallardo found that the only thing part-time about the job was the pay.

“In order to serve in Legislature and be a good lawmaker and produce quality work, it has to be a full-time job,” said Gallardo, a Phoenix Democrat who recently won election to the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors.

In November, voters will decide whether to increase lawmakers’ salaries from $24,000 a year to $35,000 a year based on a recommendation from the Commission on Salaries for Elective State Officers. It would be the first raise for state lawmakers since voters approved one in 1998, the only time a raise has been approved.

Gallardo, who supports Proposition 304, said a lawmaker’s days at the statehouse often begin at 7:30 a.m. and ended at 9. Then there’s work with constituents.

The long hours were easier for him because he’s single, he said, but that not all of his fellow lawmakers were in the same situation.

“In session bills get done really quickly and lawmakers can’t afford to spend time after because they have other jobs to focus on,” Gallardo said.

Since 1998, voters have consistently gone against proposed raises for lawmakers, with the last defeat coming in 2008. There weren’t proposals in 2010 or 2012 due to the recession.

In addition to their salaries, lawmakers also receive a daily per-diem to cover travel and living expenses: $35 for Maricopa County residents and $60 for those who travel from elsewhere.

The Commission on Salaries for Elective State Officers made its recommendation based on inflation. The Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index calculated that $24,000 in 1998 equates to $35,021.15 today.

Lisa Atkins, chairwoman of the commission, said it’s a good time to revisit the issue with the economy improving.

“Nobody runs for the Legislature based on the salary. Nobody says, ‘I want a $24,000 a year job,’” she said. “They run because of their passion for public service.”

While the legislative session is supposed to last 100 days in the spring, in the end lawmakers must give up full-time jobs to better serve constituents, Atkins said.

“We owe it to those people who run for office and make our policy decisions for a multi-billion dollar state that we fairly compensate them,” she said.

Joe Kanefield, a member of the commission, said that while Arizonans want a citizen Legislature lawmakers’ compensation should reflect the work they do beyond the regular session.

“We also need to make sure they can adequately supplement their income for whatever else they’re doing,” he said.

Karen Johnson, a former state senator, submitted an argument against Proposition 304 for the Secretary of State Publicity Pamphlet, which explains ballot measures. It noted that a higher salary doesn’t mean better government and added that Illinois, California and New York have the highest salaries for lawmakers but are, Johnson said, run poorly and in debt.

“As the salary grows, legislatures stay in session longer, write more bills and pass more laws,” Johnson’s statement said.

Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, said she plans to vote against the proposition because the state budget will be in deficit.

“I sincerely believe they work very hard,” she said. “I just don’t think our state can afford it.”

Rep. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, said he supports the increase but doesn’t expect it to pass.

“It’s probably going to get shot down because voters give us our approval rating based on what’s happening in D.C.,” Borrelli said.

For Borrelli, the $24,000 covers only his expenses. But his district includes Mohave and La Paz counties, and he said he doesn’t get reimbursed for any travel within that large area.

“You should be able to do this and not make a living, but you should be compensated enough that you don’t have to do the job out of your own pocket,” he said.

Gallardo said he knows a handful of people who want to serve but simply cannot afford it.

“How many employers let them leave for 5-6 months and compensate them? None,” he said.

With the current salary, Gallardo said, the job appeals mainly to those who have supplemental incomes or are retired. But he said the state Legislature should be more representative of all parts of society.

“You get what you pay for, and they are not paying a good salary for people to part from their other jobs,” he said.