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Colorado lawmakers’ $42,000 average salary influences who drafts and votes on bills

A Colorado Sun analysis of lawmaker salaries as compiled by the National Council of State Legislatures
Representatives in the Colorado House. (Jesse Paul/Colorado Sun file)

The 100 state lawmakers in Colorado earn about $42,000 a year for their work at the Capitol, placing them in the middle of the pack compared to their counterparts across the U.S. when it comes to how much they’re paid to draft, debate and vote on bills.

That influences who runs to be a state representative or senator, which in turn determines which legislation passes or fails.

A Colorado Sun analysis of state lawmaker salaries compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures places Colorado 19th on the salary list. Colorado legislators earn more than counterparts in any bordering state except Oklahoma.

State senators whose terms began before January earn a salary of $41,449. Senators whose terms began in January, as well as all House members, make $43,977.

The salaries are set at 25% of a county judge’s salary, which through 2026 is $175,908. Salaries for state lawmakers, as well as state-level statewide elected officials, are recalculated every four years based on changes to judicial officers’ salaries.

Colorado lawmakers who live within 50 miles of the Capitol – a large portion, if not the majority, of the Legislature – are also eligible to receive a per diem of $45 for each of the 120 days the General Assembly is in session each year, which adds up to $5,400. Those who live more than 50 miles from the Capitol are entitled to about $237 per legislative day, which totals $28,440.

That’s in addition to mileage.

For reference, the median household income in Colorado is $80,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The median gross annual rent in Colorado is $17,244.

State Sen. James Coleman, a Denver Democrat, said it’s difficult to find a place to live in Colorado on a $42,000 salary. “Absolutely I think it picks and chooses who can participate,” he said.

Oklahoma lawmakers make $47,500, while lawmakers in Nebraska earn $12,000. Lawmakers in Utah earn $285 per legislative day and lawmakers in Kansas earn $88.66 per legislative day of service, in addition to about $7,000 to defray interim costs. In Wyoming, lawmakers earn $150 per day they work. (Lawmakers in all of those states are entitled to per diem, though in Utah the benefit can only be claimed by lawmakers who live more than 100 miles from Salt Lake City, the state capital.)

In New Mexico, lawmakers are paid no salary.

The Colorado State Capitol through the Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center on July 20, 2021, in Denver. (Olivia Sun/The Colorado Sun)

New York lawmakers make $142,000, the most of any state lawmakers in the U.S., though their outside income will be capped at $35,000 starting in 2025. California lawmakers are second, at $122,694, with higher amounts for legislative leadership. Pennsylvania is third at $102,844.

New Mexico lawmakers make the least – $0 – of any state lawmaker in the U.S. Close behind is New Hampshire, where the state’s 424 lawmakers are paid a $100 salary – a rate set more than 130 years ago – and get no per diem, meaning that technically they receive even less compensation than lawmakers in New Mexico, who get a per diem of roughly $200.

U.S. senators and representatives, for reference, make $174,000 each year. Congressional leaders earn even more.

Politics, cost of living and length of legislative session determine pay

The variations in state lawmaker pay across the U.S. are influenced by many factors, including politics and cost of living differences from state to state.

They are also determined by whether a state’s legislature operates year-round – like in California, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania – or is part time, like in Colorado, where each lawmaking term is limited to 120 days.

Colorado’s General Assembly was intentionally formed as a “citizen” legislature, where representatives and senators aren’t full-time politicians. Lawmakers are expected to have jobs outside of the Capitol, though many say serving in the General Assembly is truly a full-time job.

Critics of Colorado lawmakers’ pay say it limits who can serve at the Capitol to wealthier people, who are often retired, white and without school-age kids.

“The arrangement that we have definitely takes some people out of the running,” said former state Sen. Mike Foote, a Boulder County Democrat who opted not to run for reelection after finding it difficult to balance his Capitol duties with a demanding work schedule as a private attorney raising a family.

However, Foote said lawmakers know the financial consequences of serving at the Capitol when they run for a legislative seat. And he points out many Coloradans work full time and make $40,000 a year.

Sen. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, has advocated for the Legislature to increase its salary. Outside of her job as a legislator, Winter works for VoteRunLead, a nonprofit that trains women to run for office, recruiting political candidates.

“The first or second question that gets asked is ‘How do I have a family and do this? How can I afford to do this?’” she said. “When we want BIPOC folks to run and we want women to run and we want young people to run and LGBTQ folks, then we have to make sure that we’re making it possible for them.”

State Sen. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, during Gov. Jared Polis’ swearing-in ceremony Jan. 10, at the Colorado State Capitol in Denver. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun file)

BIPOC means Black, Indigenous and people of color.

Coleman, who is Black, was the youngest member of the Legislature when he was first elected to the House in 2016. At the time, he had two 6-year-old kids. Coleman said his age, lack of intergenerational wealth and young family made it very difficult to serve as a state lawmaker.

“It was virtually impossible for me to run and afford to serve,” he said, noting that candidates for office aren’t paid.

While some employers may be OK with someone taking off for 120 days to work in the Legislature, Coleman said, they are few and far between. Besides, he said, being a state representative or state senator really requires year-round attention for those who want to be successful and adequately represent their community.

Democratic Colorado state Sen. James Coleman speaks during an election watch party Tuesday, Nov. 8, in downtown Denver. (David Zalubowski/Associated Press file)

But others argue the limited salary actually serves to ensure Colorado has a citizen legislature.

“I think Colorado is about where it needs to be,” Rep. Rod Bockenfeld, a Watkins Republican, said of state lawmakers’ salary level.

Bockenfeld, who sits on the Joint Budget Committee, said he knows the Legislature’s low salary could stop some people from being able to run for office. He personally experienced that hurdle.

Before he could afford to run for the Legislature, he served as an Arapahoe County commissioner for 12 years and earned a much higher salary. (The current salary for a commissioner in Arapahoe County is $131,701.)

State Rep. Rod Bockenfeld speaks at the GOP state assembly on Saturday, April 9, 2022, in Colorado Springs. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun file)

Senate Minority Leader Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, worries that raising lawmakers’ pay would prompt the Legislature to become a full-time, year-round job. He opposes that shift because of how it would expand government influence.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.