A legislative committee on Wednesday advanced two bills addressing lawmaker benefits. The Senate Rules Committee voted 4-1 to pass both Senate File 61 – Legislator per diem and Senate File 62 – Legislator health care-2.
The bills are part of an ongoing discussion about who has the means to serve in Wyoming’s citizen Legislature and who does not. A majority of current lawmakers are retirees or self-employed. Many longtime legislators say the job has also become progressively more demanding as complex interim topics have stacked up along with additional committee meeting days.
Meanwhile, legislator salary and per diem rates have not increased since 2005. This is not for a lack of trying; between 2001 and 2022, 20 bills related to legislator compensation, per diem, constituent service allowance or other benefits were either numbered or introduced, according to a Legislative Service Office memo. Only five of those became law. The most recent one — a 2020 bill — provides worker’s compensation coverage for lawmakers.
Public perception that the government is giving itself a raise has also been a hurdle, according to some lawmakers. Appearances aside, the Wyoming Constitution does place limits on that power, according to the LSO. The 67th Legislature, for example, could raise salaries for the 68th Legislature but not its own. In an effort to address optics, another bill currently in play — House Bill 53 – State officials’ compensation commission — would outsource those decisions to an independent council.
Both SF 61 and 62 came out of an interim subcommittee dedicated to studying lawmaker compensation. That same committee worked on a bill to outright increase the salaries of lawmakers, but it failed to get the support of the Management Council.
Senate File 61 would raise the daily allowance from its current rate of $109 to $155. Those dollars can be used to cover expenses lawmakers incur on the job like meals away from home and lodging. The legislation would also create an automatic annual adjustment that would be based on the federal per diem rates, a practice employed by most states.
Sen. Mike Gierau (R-Jackson) said he’s heard from several other legislators that the current per diem rate is only enough to fill up their truck’s gas tank.
The increase in per diem would also apply to members of state boards, commissions, councils and other authorities who are paid from the general fund — some 400 to 500 residents, according to Sen. Eric Barlow (R-Gillette). Those members do not receive any salary.
While the Legislature passed a bill in 2019 to boost per diem rates, Gov. Mark Gordon vetoed the legislation because it limited those rates for lawmakers with primary residences within 25 miles of the Capitol Building in Cheyenne.
“This doesn’t have that bit of liability,” Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) said. “So I think it’s important to let the chamber have at it like they had it.”
Sen. Dave Kinskey (R-Sheridan) cast the one vote in opposition to the bill.
Senate File 62 would allow lawmakers to opt into the state employee group health insurance program at the same level as state officials. It would also allow their dependents to participate. If the bill becomes law, the option would become available for the 68th Legislature.
Reps. Landon Brown (R-Cheyenne) and Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne) have both previously described times in their legislative service when the hours away from their day jobs forced them to go without health insurance.
The risk of losing health insurance may be keeping potential lawmakers from running for the Legislature in the first place, according to Rothfuss.
“You think about it for your family, I think about it for mine. There is no way I’m going to put myself in a circumstance where I don’t have health insurance,” Rothfuss said.
Kinskey said he wouldn’t support the bill due to his experience in local government in Sheridan, when the city council there discussed a similar measure.
“I floated the idea and it did not go over well,” Kinskey said. “It just bollixed up in peoples’ perception and it did not go well and I backed off of it.”
Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) voted for the bill in order to get it out on the floor for a full debate, but expressed reservations. A long-serving Carbon County commissioner sought reelection purely for health insurance, according to Hicks.
“It encourages people to stay on longer than they should,” Hicks said.
The full Senate will now debate both bills.