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Close cash loophole

While the Legislature grapples with rising pension costs and the need to make cuts in most state agency budgets, some senators are proposing a 63 percent pay raise for legislators.

Legislative salaries already went up 28 percent on Feb. 1, bringing base pay to $31,200 a year. Compared with a professional private-sector job, that’s not a great deal of money. But during the long legislative sessions in odd-numbered years, legislators also get $149 a day intended to cover lodging and meals while in session. That could total $23,840 this year, bringing earnings to about $55,000. Then, they get $450 a month for expenses when the Legislature is out of session.

That’s still not lavish, and backers of the pay-raise proposal say it’s hard to attract qualified candidates who are not either retired or wealthy, leading to a legislature that does not reflect ordinary Oregonians.

Senate Bill 959 would tie lawmakers’ salaries to the statewide average — just over $50,000 a year. Add per diem, and lawmakers could earn nearly $75,000 in odd-numbered years.

But first, the Legislature should close the loophole that allows lawmakers to spend campaign funds on virtually anything as long as it’s tied to their official duties. That includes meals and lodging while in session. Legislators can cover those expenses with campaign dollars, and still collect $149 a day in per diem.

Sponsors of SB 959 would have a stronger argument if it weren’t for the loose rules about campaign funds. Before considering a pay raise, lawmakers should forbid the use of campaign funds for anything but campaigning.