Why I Voted to Raise the #AZLeg Per Diem

[On Monday, May 27, the Arizona Legislature voted to raise the per diem compensation. This is my floor speech to explain my vote.]

When I decided to run for office in January 2016, I stepped down as managing editor of the American Journal of Medicine and became social media editor. With this step, I took a 60% pay cut. I knew I would be bringing in less money, but we thought it would all even out working two part-time jobs (with one of those part-time jobs being 24/7.)

When I was elected to the Arizona House, I didn’t realize how much I would have to pay out of pocket.

The Cost to Serve

Currently, Arizona Legislators are paid $24,000 with a $60 per diem for rural/out of Maricopa County folks and $35 per diem for Maricopa County legislators– for the first 120 days of session. The per diem drops to $20 and $10, respectively, after 120 days and during the interim.

Each year in the fall, I rent a small apartment for six months for $1000-1200 per month plus Internet, water, electric and fees. Since it is a six-month lease, there is an additional charge per month tacked on for that convenience. (Large corporate apartment complexes love to add fees– on-time payment fees if you use a debit card, late fees, recycling fees, pet fees, “association” fees, etc.) Pretty much my whole in-session per diem goes to housing.

In fact, this year when I applied to rent my apartment, I sent them my pay stub from the Legislature to the apartment complex’s management company. A few days later, they sent me a kind rejection notice saying that with a salary of $24,000, I didn’t qualify to rent a 400 square-foot studio apartment. I replied, “Don’t worry. I have a second job!” And sent them my pay stub from the journal.

Let that sink in. On my Legislative salary, I didn’t qualify to rent a tiny studio apartment in midtown Phoenix.

Each year at the end of session, I move out of my apartment, store my furniture, and turn off the utilities because I can’t afford to keep an apartment during the interim. When I have out-of-town meetings during the interim, I either join by phone (not optimal) or drive up. If the meeting runs late or is more than one day, I am forced to rent a hotel room. Six months later, it all starts again… searching for an affordable apartment that will allow a six-month lease, getting my furniture out of storage, and setting up utilities.

This all adds up… the rent, the fees, the hotel rooms, the mileage, the wear and tear on my car.  In the past three years, there are times when I wondered if I can afford to be in the Legislature. It shouldn’t be like this. Members shouldn’t have to subsidize the state by paying unreimbursed expenses out of pocket.

What Is the Compensation in Other States?

When I first heard about the proposed per diem increase to the federal level, I thought the dollar amount seem high: $24,000 salary plus $188 per diem for the first 120 days of session for people outside of Maricopa County and half that for Maricopa County folks. After 120 days and during the interim, these amounts are halved again for everyone.

Being a journalist and researcher at heart, I looked online to see how Arizona’s Legislative compensation compares to other states. What I found was that salaries and per diem compensation for Legislators were all over the place– with California and New Hampshire not only being opposites geographically but also financially in terms of legislative compensation.

Here are a few examples from the middle of the road states. These are all states with systems of government similar to Arizona’s in that their Legislators work part of the year.

Arizona would be aligned with Indiana and Iowa if the per diem bill is signed into law:

  • Indiana $25,945 annual salary / $173 per diem
  • Iowa $25,000 annual salary / $168 per diem

Other states pay higher salaries and have similar per diems:

  • Arkansas $40, 188 annual salary / $155 per diem PD for rural; $59 PD for local
  • Oklahoma $38,400 annual salary / $154 per diem
  • Colorado $40,242 annual salary / $160 per diem for rural; $45 for local

Some states like Alabama pay significantly more but offer no per diem:

  • Alabama $48,124 annual salary / no per diem

If You Want a Better Legislature…

Arizona’s compensation is not enough. Many of us who live outside of Maricopa County are losing money by serving in the Arizona Legislature. Making service affordable will diversify the Arizona Legislature because more people of modest means would be able to serve. In fact, in explaining their votes, several rural Legislators said they were voting to raise the per diem in order to help future members.

If Arizona voters want their Legislators to: 1) be less beholden to big money donors, 2) accept fewer lobbyist-funded dinners, and 3) promote fewer self-serving bills, they should support making service in the Legislature affordable for regular folks.

Under Arizona’s current compensation system, the only people who can afford to serve are retired, independently wealthy, supported by a partner, or just eking out a living. We can do better.

[UPDATE: Per diem passed the Arizona Legislature, but was vetoed by the governor. He hinted that he was willing to talk about this in 2020.]