Sympathy And The $15 Breakfast

The plea for relief might have been almost heart-tugging. If it wasn’t for that claim of the $15 breakfast.

“For many of the men and women who serve in Colorado’s General Assembly, going to work is as simple as commuting a few miles to the state Capitol,” writes Colorado Sen. Jack Taylor and Rep. Kathleen Curry in an op/ed in this Sunday’s Denver Post. “But, just try walking a mile in the shoes of a rural lawmaker.”

Specifically, Sen. Taylor and Rep. Curry want a pay raise. In addition to the $30,000 salary they are paid to be four-month-a-year legislators, they want to increase their per diem allowance from $99 a day to $149 a day – retroactive to the first day of this year’s session.

They might have gotten some sympathy for their claims – long hours, long commutes, lots of worn out car tires – except for one glaring misstep: two weeks ago, also in the Denver Post, Sen. Taylor was quoted saying things like this: “You can’t get a decent breakfast unless you pay $12 to $15. “Lunch is another $15, and dinner is $20.”

Huh? Where this guy is choosing to eat was not revealed. But Taylor also went on record grousing about how much he spends on lodging in Denver while the legislature is in session from January to May – “a downtown hotel that tripled its rental rate this year to $2,400 a month.”

Other lawmakers who represent districts outside the Denver Metro area reported they spend $1,200 a month for an apartment, and $895 a month for lodging close to the Capitol.

“Unfortunately, in today’s economy, $99 doesn’t stretch very far – and that’s no surprise considering the rate [for lawmakers’ pay] hasn’t changed since 1989!” Sen. Taylor and Rep. Curry wrote in this week’s op/ed. “A motel room in Denver typically runs over $100 a night, and that’s not counting our meals. We don’t get reimbursed at all when we are not in session, and even during the session, we get no reimbursements – none – for lodging when we are in our own districts. One of our districts is more than twice the size of Delaware; the other of our districts is twice the size of New Jersey and takes four hours – in good weather – to drive across. If we’re caught in a snowstorm or traveling late at night and need a place to stay, we pick up the tab ourselves.”

Now let’s take a look at how the rest of us live. According to the U.S. Census, the 2.5-person median household income for Colorado families in 2003 was $49,248 – and that represents a full year’s work.

The per capita income in 1999, the last year shown, was $24,049 – again, for a full year’s work. The number of people living below the poverty level in Colorado in 2003 was 10 percent.

And according to an affordable housing study conducted by the Colorado Division of Housing and The Colorado Housing and Finance Authority last year, the median cost of rent in Colorado was $662 a month, with the lowest in Pueblo at $465 a month, and highest in Boulder/Broomfield, with $757. Three bedroom units averaged $760; two bedroom, two bath, $717; two bedroom, one bath, $594; one bedroom, $555; and efficiencies, $366.

The real costs of living were not lost on a dozen readers who left comments to the Post‘s story – none of them remotely sympathetic to the lawmakers’ plight. In fact, many advised them to consider walking a mile in their shoes. Here’s a sampling:

“I don’t know where you go for breakfast, but I’m sure I could find something cheaper than $12….”
– Ladida

“Last time I checked, MacDonalds, wendy’s and other places had value menus. I manage to grab breakfast and tea for less than $3.oo on the days I commute to denver, and Lunch for under 7… As far as overnight housing, maybe some of the metro legislators could open a room or two to their outlying collegues, or we can build in legislative housing nexgt to the new Denver jail, dorm style?”
– margie

“This is why government struggles so much. These people can’t live off of 99 dollars a day? Give me a break….these people can’t manage money. A lot of people have to support a family on about 50 dollars a day after taxes.”
– forker

  “If ever there was an illustration of how far removed our elected representatives are from their constituents, it is in this article! My apologies to our good representatives who are now forced to pay for their own meals. Please, as a tax payer, let me work a little bit more at my full time (that’s 260 days a year by the way) job without a per diem to fit that bill for you. By the way, just as an aside, a great apartment just opened up across the hall from me downtown for $600 a month. It would be an honor to live in the same building as our distinguished legislators…that is if you don’t mind “slumming” it with us little people.”
– Josh Downey

“I can not believe that our elected officials think that $11,880 in extra pay for doing their job is not enough. Why is it that they feel that they are entitled to eat at restaurants every meal everyday of the session? Surely most of their constituents do not have this luxury. Beyond that, they chose to pursue a career in public service, if they do not like the constraints, they could do something else.”
– Bill Egnor

  “Sniff! Boo Hoo! Wimper! The next thing these plutocrats will want is is a pay raise! They can’t get by on 30k for 100 days of showing up for fun and payoffs at the legislature? Remember that’s tax free! How about a nice citizen referendum in 2008 changing the yearly Legislative clown fest to every other year?”
– wally

“There’s a way to solve this: Pay our teachers what they should be paid and in a generation or less we have smarter lawmakers.”
– Andy Walton

Cara DeGette is a longtime Colorado journalist and a senior fellow at Colorado Confidential. E-mail her at

Comments are closed.