Arizona Legislature’s Budget Shenanigans

shell game

Of all the legislative “shenanigans” – strike-alls, floor amendments – the absolute worst of the worst is the budget and the budget reconciliation bills (a.k.a.BRBs) “shenanigans.” While we do know much of what is in the budget, only time will tell exactly what is buried in this session’s round of last minute “negotiations” and “deals.” The devil is always in the details.

The state budget is or should be the number one priority of our legislators and our governor and yet it is the very last thing to which they turn their attention during the hell-bent rush to get the session over, done and Sine Die.

 

This session between bills, memorials, and resolution the 60 House members dropped 818 pieces of legislation or an average of almost 14 per member. On the Senate side – all counted – its 30 members dropped 597 for an average of almost 20 per member. Every one of these bills – even if unassigned – for all intent and purposes took precedent over the state’s budget. And while no doubt ALL of these bills are vitally important, at least in the opinion of the sponsors (or the lobbyists???), life will go on, the sun will rise and set without them; it already has time and again. Without the state budget – not so much; many essential services would cease come July 1 without a state budget – public safety and education are just two that come immediately to mind.

The various state agencies and departments are required to submit their budget requests in SEPTEMBER. Depending on the exact due date that is, at the minimum, more than 3 months before the beginning of the legislative session; plenty of time to compile the information necessary for the  legislature and governor to begin working together on the state budget, publicly, from the beginning of  the session. The Appropriation committees do hold hearings on these agency budgets but according to the legislative calendar the last hearings were April 2nd in the Senate and April 4th in the House. However it wasn’t until “late” on Tuesday, May 21th that the super secret budget was finally revealed to the members and became public. And until the actual appropriation bills are dropped everything else is just talk, maybe some grandstanding, rumor, speculation and innuendo. A cynic might not help but wonder what exactly happened behind the scenes in those 47 legislative days, in what is often described as “budget negotiations” between “leadership,” until finally the budget is released. But then in what amounted to the virtual blink of an eye an $11.8 BILLION budget is passed; it was unveiled, vetted, scrutinized, “negotiated” and approved in – a week. 5% of the legislative session spent on the single most important work with which the legislature is tasked.

There was lots of grumbling this year about the budget process being “held hostage” primarily by two legislators, Senators Carter (R-LD15) and Boyer (R-LD20).  One might suggest that if the budget was the highest priority of the session rather than the very last thing on the agenda, when legislators are all itching to “just get done and go home,” maybe, just maybe, their “colleagues” wouldn’t be so empowered to force through their own bills and agenda – whether good or bad. Any complaints about being “tired” at the end of a “long” session or being in session on a Saturday or Memorial Day or until the wee hours of the night during this last frantic rush to Sine Die quite frankly ring hallow. What executives don’t work long hours and weekends on a routine basis? Nonetheless, one might again suggest that would not be the case if the budget was the priority of the session rather than an afterthought albeit a mandatory one. And if they just can’t get a “round tuit” when it comes to most of those other 1400+ bills in a 100 days then Sine Die – so be it. Budget first; bills second would certainly be a good way to separate the wheat from the chaff. Would we truly be the worse off if the legislature concentrated on passing a budget and not much else? Arguably we would be freer without those dozens, if not hundreds of extra pages of new statutes. But I digress.

One thing we do now know that was slipped through in the wee hours (literally – according to the Capital Times) is a “pay raise” the legislators are trying to give themselves. Of course, only the voters of Arizona can raise their actual salary, so they gave themselves a very significant increase to their “per diem.” According to the Capital Times (May 27, 2019) out of county lawmakers who currently receive $60/day will be receiving $129 for lodging and $56 for meals assuming the governor signs the bill. Maricopa County (MC) legislators’ per diem will increase from $35/day to $92.50/day.

Let’s take a look at what this means in terms of working days and real dollars. The legislative per diem is paid every calendar day from the start of the session until Sine Die. However, with only two possible exceptions this session (a House “second reading” (while listed on the calendar I can’t substantiate it actual occurred but I’ll include it nonetheless) and a House HHS committee meeting which included only a handful of members) the legislature does not meet on Fridays, nor on Saturdays (with one exception during budget “shenanigans” week) and no Sundays, So, they are paid for a seven day “work week” which in reality is 4 days. While we hear so much about a session in excess of 100 days (135 days this year) that is counted in calendar days, in reality it was 81 working days – at least the way the rest of the working world counts work days.

Legislators are paid $24,000 in salary (voter approved) and the “per diem” (ARS 41-1104) which varies; $35/day for the first 120 days in Maricopa County – $10 for each day after 120; $60/day outside Maricopa and $20/day after 120. Legislators can also be paid (with approval) this same per diem when the member “acts” on “legislative matters” – whatever that means – outside the regular or special sessions. At the current rates of per diem and counting every calendar day as a work day (135) for this session Maricopa Cty legislators should be paid $28.4K or $210/day and outside MC $31.5K or $233/day. Prorate this to an average 251 day work year that’s $52.7K for MC legislators and for those outside MC $58.6K.

Now, just for fun, let’s look at the numbers for the actual number of days the legislators met during the session – 81 days. Then the prorated compensation jumps to $350/day for MC legislators or $87.9K annualized; outside MC $389/day or $97.6K annualized.

To take this just one step further, let’s look at what the new rates will do to legislator’s compensation as applied to this session – assuming it actually becomes law. The Maricopa County rate increases to $265/day or $66.5K annualized and outside MC $353/day or $88.5K annualized for 135 days. However it really becomes – eye opening – when we annualize the new rate based on the number of actual working/meeting days in the session X comparable work days in the real world. Then the MC rate becomes $442/day or $110.9K annualized and outside MC $588/day or $147.5K annualized.

While legislators should be compensated for the work they do perhaps they should be reminded, as they themselves sometimes remind those who come to them complaining about pay – you knew what it was when you took (ran for) the job (office). And least we not forget many are very wealthy in their own right and/or have additional income from operating their own businesses (and arguably passing laws that benefit those businesses???) OR are already on a pension from government or are retired from other previous employment OR hold jobs in addition to and during the legislative session (one legislator actually scheduled the committee he chaired around his “other” work schedule) OR have the ability to hold a position after a legislative session that is a third (or less) of the working days in the real world – much like is suggested of teachers who have 185 day contracts. However in most cases it is not their only income unless they choose it to be so.

Certainly one can understand the hardships and expenses that are incurred by legislators who must travel to and stay in Phoenix, away from their families, from all corners the state during the session. It certainly is appropriate to reimburse them for such expenses – either by a fair flat rate per diem or for actual expenses (with a reasonable cap). But “per diem” is defined as a daily expense allowance. Yet legislators who can go home to their own families, dinner tables and beds every night have gifted themselves almost $100 per day for “expenses” that they are not incurring. To my knowledge, and I do have some knowledge of this issue, other elected officials and state employees cannot be reimbursed for what is their routine commute into work nor reimbursed for their lunch – not even those employees  who live outside of Maricopa County.

Rep. Campbell (R-LD1) is quoted as calling for a unanimous vote so that “It will give cover…” To Rep. Campbell and Sen. Livingston (R-LD22) the prime sponsors of HB2760/SB1558 and all the legislators who co-sponsored or voted themselves this benefit (Senate 22-7-1; House 37-23), if per diem is really just a backdoor way to do an end run around the taxpayers and give yourselves a huge increase in your compensation that the voters haven’t or won’t otherwise approve at the very least be honest about it; do not look for the “cover” of a unanimous vote or a vote taken in the dark of night on your way out the door. This seems to confirm what a friend of mine often laments which is that when people can get their hands on what she refers to as “OPiuM” – Other Peoples’ Money (both very addictive) the sky is the limit. The taxpayers of AZ deserve better than this type of disrespectful “shenanigans” from our elected representatives.

2 Comments

  1. Here’s an idea. Let’s double their pay if they agree to stay home and do nothing except pass the budget – with a public 30 day review and comment period before passing it.

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