Legislator per diem moving forward, pay hike to be decided
By Stephen Dow
Via- Wyoming News Exchange
CODY — A proposed change to Wyoming Legislature per diem rates is advancing to the 2023 general session, although it remains to be seen whether a pay increase for legislators will follow suit.
During a meeting of the Legislature’s Management Council Oct. 24, a bill increasing legislators’ per diem — a daily allowance to cover the expenses associated with serving — from $109 to $155 was forwarded on a 7-2 vote by the council.
If the bill is approved in the general session, the increase will go into effect July 1, 2023.
The per diem was last increased in 2008, and numerous council members said it made sense to increase the rate.
Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devil’s Tower, said the low per diem rate was just one factor limiting citizen participation in the legislature.
“I think it’s absolutely critical … that we actually have legislators who can come down here without paying money out of their pocket,” he said. “If you want a legislature … that is actually the citizen legislature you’ve asked for, this is the only way we’re going to get it. Right now, we’ve shut out virtually anybody who’s lower income from being able to serve because they’re going to spend all their money covering their expenses.”
In an interview with the Enterprise earlier this month, Rep. Sandy Newsome, R-Cody, said she would also support a per diem increase.
“The truth is $109 doesn’t go as far as it used to,” Newsome said. “I can spend $100 on a hotel room alone, and that doesn’t leave much for meals or other expenses.”
However, Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper, voted nay, arguing that increasing the per diem rates could be considered a salary increase, and Wyoming State Statute does not permit legislators to raise their own salaries.
Gray also said he was concerned that legislators in Cheyenne would receive the same per diem rate as other legislators, although they would be staying in their homes and not having to spend as much money on food and lodging.
The Cheyenne issue has historically been a sticking point in legislative discussions about per diem increases. In 2019, the Legislature passed a bill that would have increased the per diem rate. However, Gov. Mark Gordon vetoed the bill due to an amendment that would have restricted per diem to a half rate for those who live within 25 miles of the capitol.
“The bill seems solely prejudiced against legislators living within a 25-mile radius of the state capitol,” Gordon said in a statement at the time. “I am, therefore, vetoing House Bill 38. In doing so I again commend the legislature for their consideration of this topic and recommend reconsideration in the intervening year.”
While the per diem increase is moving forward, the council decided to postpone a decision on the pay increase bill, which would raise legislators’ daily pay from $150 to $230, until its next meeting in December.
Legislators on the committee expressed concern that the bill as drafted violated the legislature’s rule restricting a bill to a single subject.
The bill not only raised legislature pay, but also created an independent commission to oversee compensation in the future so legislators will not have to be responsible for raising their own pay.
Sen. Dan Dockstader, R-Afton, asked the Legislative Service Office to divide the bill into two separate bills for council consideration in December.
Even if the pay increase bill moves forward to the general session, it has an uphill battle to approval.
Legislators have not approved a pay increase for their body since 2005, and several Park County legislators told the Enterprise earlier this month they would never support an increase.
“I don’t think I could vote for it at this point,” Rep. John Winter, R-Thermopolis, told the Enterprise. “When you look at what’s happening in the economy, I don’t think we ought to be giving ourselves a raise when no one else is. I agree it’s pretty expensive to do all the running around we need to do, but we just need to tighten our belts and move forward.”
If approved, the pay increase would go into effect in 2027, as legislators are not permitted to raise their own salaries.