Rural lawmakers are paid twice as much as their Maricopa County peers

What was originally sold as a way to ensure state legislators from rural Arizona wouldn’t have to go broke trying to do the job now appears to go far beyond paying living expenses for lawmakers who have to travel to Phoenix — and has created a gigantic pay gap at the Capitol.

Thanks to a massive bump in subsistence pay granted to rural lawmakers in 2021, legislators who don’t live in Maricopa County are now earning several times more than their colleagues who live in the metro Phoenix area.

According to the Arizona Mirror’s analysis of legislative pay records, there were 35 legislators who hailed from outside Maricopa County in 2023. They collectively were paid more than 4 times as much in per diem subsistence payments than the 59 lawmakers who live in the state’s most populous county.

The average per diem payment to Maricopa County lawmakers for the year was about $5,700. Lawmakers from the other 14 counties were paid more than $45,500 on average. That’s on top of the $24,000 salary that all legislators earn.

There were 30 lawmakers who earned at least twice as much in subsistence and mileage pay in 2023 than they did in annual salary.

“It has to be addressed,” said GOP strategist and lobbyist Chuck Coughlin. “You can’t have two classes of lawmakers.”

The disparity in pay can be seen acutely in three legislative districts that include parts of Maricopa County and other counties, and where lawmakers from multiple counties represent the same district.

Take District 23, which stretches from the West Valley down to Yuma County. Rep. Mariana Sandoval’s home in Goodyear means she was paid $6,440 in per diem; Sen. Brian Fernandez and Rep. Michele Pena live in Yuma, and collected almost $44,000 and $39,000, respectively.

The same scene was replayed in District 15, which covers the far southeast portion of Maricopa County and the northern portion of Pinal County. Sen. Jake Hoffman lives in the Maricopa County portion of Queen Creek, so his per diem amounted to $5,180 for the year. But his seatmates, Reps. Neal Carter and Jacqueline Parker, live in San Tan Valley in Pinal County. Carter earned more than $43,000, while Parker took home just shy of $50,000 in subsistence pay. (Parker was initially elected from Maricopa County, but moved to Pinal County shortly before the 2023 legislative session.)

And in District 25, which also goes from the West Valley to Yuma County, Rep. Tim Dunn was paid almost $44,000 in subsistence because he hailed from Yuma, while Rep. Michael Carbone and Sen. Sine Kerr, who both live in Buckeye, each got less than $6,000 for per diem pay.

In all, the combination of the subsistence pay increase and the longest legislative session in state history at 203 days, meant more than $2.4 million was paid to Arizona lawmakers for daily subsistence pay and travel to the Capitol during 2023. Most of that was for per diem pay, the vast majority of which went to out-of-county lawmakers.

Rep. Jennifer Pawlik said the difficulty of living on a legislator’s salary was among the reasons she decided not to seek reelection this year. The Chandler Democrat, a retired teacher, said she has been teaching part-time at a state university as a side hustle to help make ends meet.

“I’m an avid reader but I don’t buy books any more, I go to the library,” she said. “I get my clothes second hand instead of going to the mall.”

Arizona lawmakers are paid an annual salary of just $24,000, a figure that hasn’t changed since 1998, when voters approved an increase from the $15,000 salary that was implemented in 1980. State law requires that voters approve pay increases for elected officials, but they have rejected six pay raises for legislators since 1998, most recently in 2014.

Since then, they turned their efforts to increasing subsistence payments as a way to pay themselves more without having to win voter approval. 

The subsistence payments had remained unchanged since 1984: legislators from Maricopa County received $35 per day they worked at the Capitol, and those from outside the county received $60 daily to cover their costs. 

But those rates were proving to be inadequate for legislators who live outside of Maricopa County, most of whom have to find a place to live in the Phoenix area — particularly during the annual legislative session — so they don’t have to commute from their home, which may be several hours away. 

In 2019, then-Gov. Doug Ducey vetoed a bill that sought to increase the per diem rates for all legislators, saying that lawmakers should have written it so it didn’t apply until after the 2020 election.

After some retooling, the proposal came back in 2021, but was limited only to lawmakers who live outside of Maricopa County. It allowed those legislators to receive the highest per diem that the federal government pays traveling workers for Phoenix, which at the time was $207 a day. The new pay, which took effect after Ducey took the rare step of letting it become law without his signature, also allowed that per diem rate to increase annually as the federal government updated its numbers.

When lawmakers showed up to the Capitol in January 2023, rural legislators were receiving $238 in per diem pay for every day they worked. In October, when the per diem rates were updated to match the federal rate, that pay jumped to $251.67 per day.

Legislators also get reimbursement for travel to and from the Capitol. For the 2023 session, they were paid 62.5¢ per mile. (As with the per diem pay, that was increased in October 2023 to the new federal rate, which is 65.5¢ per mile.)

Pawlik supported the legislation increasing the per diem pay for rural lawmakers, but said it’s clearly not working as intended. Rents in the Phoenix area have been rising, but the average rent in Phoenix for a one-bedroom apartment is about $1,300, according to, and no one who supported the proposal thought the lawmakers it would affect would receive so much money.

“Obviously, those who live outside Maricopa County have to have a place to stay,” she said. “But when people are getting $40,000, that might be too much.”

Sandoval lives in Maricopa County but represents a district that spans parts of four counties. And while her two seatmates live in Yuma County and make far more in per diem payments, she said she has struggled to get approval for traveling around her district to meet with constituents. 

All travel that isn’t to or from the Capitol has to be approved by the GOP House speaker, Ben Toma.

“It’s a whole packet of documents that I have to submit to plead my case. And sometimes, they don’t get approved,” she said. “But I still go, to serve my constituents.”

Sandoval said the inequity in pay is a problem that needs to be solved because working as a legislator simply isn’t sustainable for most people, given the demands of the job.

“This is why you can’t have working people represent working people,” she said.

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