Western Slope lawmaker speaks on pay, term limits
State Rep. Kathleen Curry believes state lawmakers should be able to remain in office more than eight years.On the other hand, she said the job’s low pay gave her pause about serving more than two years.Curry, who is finishing up her first two-year term, confesses that her current $30,000-per-year salary and limited expense account caused her to think twice before even deciding to seek another term in office. She also has seen enough of how things work at the state Capitol to conclude that legislative term limits of eight years are too restrictive.Curry, a Democrat from Gunnison whose district includes Pitkin County, hopes to address both issues during next year’s legislative session. She is running unopposed for re-election.Curry voiced her concerns about term limits and legislative pay during a recent public meeting in Glenwood Springs and a subsequent interview.She said it takes a good six to eight years to understand the state budget. “By the time you get it figured out you’ve got to leave,” she said.She fears that frequent legislative turnover has given lobbyists undue influence because they end up with more expertise than lawmakers on issues.”I don’t think that’s really what voters bargained for” in approving term limits in Colorado, she said.As for compensation, lawmakers are paid for what is considered to be a part-time job because the legislature is only in session about a third of the year. But Curry said the work is in fact full-time and year-round, and many job-related expenses aren’t reimbursed. She said she knows of quality legislators who have decided against running for re-election because they can’t afford to live on their current pay.She said higher pay is needed if the legislature is to attract quality people who aren’t wealthy, and she is willing to press the matter despite the criticism she may receive.”We simply can’t go on like this,” said Curry. ” … I want to make sure that anyone can serve.”She said she survives on her salary but fears her children’s college education may suffer because she isn’t able to save much for them.Lawmakers receive a per-diem expense reimbursement during the legislative session. But if Curry travels on legislative business out of her district, such as to Grand Junction, she can’t put in for mileage. She can apply for such reimbursements for in-district trips like her recent one to Glenwood Springs, but it isn’t always approved, and lodging costs aren’t covered.Curry’s concerns drew sympathy from constituents at the Glenwood meeting.”You guys do a heck of a job, and I agree with you completely; you should be making a lot more money,” said Duke Cox, president of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, which advocates on behalf of landowners affected by local natural gas drilling.But Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute, a conservative Colorado think tank, questioned the need for a pay hike. He noted that lawmakers used to make about $17,000 until a pay raise in the late 1990s.”And mind you, that’s only for 120 days’ work,” he said.”The fact remains that qualified people continue to be attracted to those jobs.”If lawmakers want a pay hike, they have the authority to implement one, but will have to justify it to voters, he said.Curry knows the issue is politically sensitive among lawmakers and many may be reluctant to change their pay. State Rep. Mark Larson, R-Cortez, puts it this way, “That’s almost a death wish for a legislator, to vote in a pay increase.”But Larson said the job is definitely a full-time one. He cited his own situation as an example. The legislative session is over this year, and Larson is leaving office at the end of the year due to term limits.”I’m supposed to be falling off the radar screen, and I’m getting 50 e-mails a day,” he said.Caldara strongly opposes relaxing of term-limit restrictions.”The idea that it takes so many years to learn what’s right and wrong in government is a red herring. Presidents seem to be able to fulfill their missions in eight years. They don’t need to stick around for 30 years to learn what’s going on,” he said.The whole point of American democracy is that citizens would take time off from private life to volunteer as elected officeholders, then go back to private life before they fell out of touch, Caldara said. The problem, he said: “Legislators like power. Legislators don’t like giving up their power. Legislators will do everything they can to increase the power they have.”Larson admits he probably wouldn’t have become a lawmaker if term limits hadn’t created a vacancy he was elected to fill. But he shares Curry’s concern that the legislature lacks institutional memory and is increasingly reliant on lobbyists as a result.He and Curry both think that, rather than trying to eliminate term limits, there’s a better chance of increasing the allowable number of terms. But a past legislative effort to do that failed. Also, because term limits were passed by voters as a constitutional amendment, any attempt by the legislature to change things would require voter approval. Curry said she may not pursue a change to term limits if she decides there’s little chance of succeeding. But she isn’t hesitating to proceed with pay legislation. She would like pay raised to $35,000, which would simply bring it to what it would be if cost-of-living adjustments had been made each year since the last pay raise. Former state Rep. Russell George, R-Rifle, sponsored that pay raise bill.Curry said she also would like to see a cost-of-living raise each year, “so that we depoliticize this issue, so that we don’t have to fall behind and we don’t have to battle every year over whether this is appropriate.”
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