A joint conference committee of the Wyoming Legislature voted Friday to support increasing the per diem rate paid to state lawmakers and other officials citing concerns that people may be dissuaded from public service because they may fear it would be a financial drain.
“I think it’s critically important that legislators be compensated for, at the very least, for their meals and their lodging,” said House Speaker Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale. “It’s high time we did this, otherwise we’re not going to have any average citizens in the Legislature. Just people cannot afford it.”
Senate File 61 would bump the per diem from $109 a day to the most recent per diem rates established by the U.S. General Services Administration for locations in Wyoming. This is not an increase in the salary of Wyoming lawmakers; rather, a reimbursement for travel expenses.
Those who vote against the increase would stay at the $109 per day rate.
The current rate set by the federal GSA is $98 a day for lodging and $59 for meals while in legislative service, meaning if passed, lawmakers could expense up to $157 a day. There also are 52 state boards and commissions tied to the rates.
The per diem rate hasn’t been increased by the Legislature since 2005.
“The cost of a tank of gas costs more now than our per diem,” Sen. Mike Gierau, D-Jackson, exclaimed during an unrelated discussion in the Senate on Friday morning.
If You Voted For It, Don’t Get It
Earlier in the week, Rep. Mike Yin, D-Jackson, successfully added a clause in SF 61 that would exempt state legislators who vote against the increase from automatically getting a per diem allowance if it passes.
Legislators also have the option of waiving per diem or only accepting a half-day reimbursement.
Yin said the intent of his amendment was to save money and allow a more gradual transition to the per diem.
Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, spoke against Yin’s amendment, saying it would provide “undue influence on how to vote.”
She also said it is too specific to the current Legislature.
The Joint Conference Committee removed the amendment from the bill Friday.
“It might not be the last time we see this type of amendment,” Sen. Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, remarked at the close of the meeting.
Yin still supports the per diem increase, saying nobody should lose money for serving in the Legislature.
“I do think the per diem is really extremely important to make sure we’re not actually costing us money while participating in the Legislature,” he said.
Most state legislators make between $15,000 to $20,000 a year for their work. Although the Legislature only meets for a couple of months while in session, there are about five to six interim meetings held over the rest of the year, sometimes meeting for two full consecutive days. These meetings are held in a variety of locations around the state.
“We’re just wanting to adequately compensate people for their travel and their time,” Ellis said.
Unless already retired, it would be very difficult for someone to live solely off being an elected member of the state House or Senate, giving credence to Wyoming being a “citizen’s legislature.”
Ellis said if the Legislature were to do away with per diem compensation entirely, it would have to hire more full-time staff to keep track of direct reimbursements.
“We’re not trying to overcompensate people, we’re just trying to allow them their travel costs,” she said.
Rep. Steve Harshman, R-Casper, said there are more than 500 other people tied to the per diem increase serving on state board and commissions who are eligible for the benefit.
“That’s a bigger deal than the legislators,” Harshman said.