DENVER (AP) – Colorado senators from both parties were on the defense Tuesday, as they gave tentative approval to a measure that includes more money for rural lawmakers.

A bill that won tentative approval on a voice vote includes a 22 percent per diem hike for the 41 lawmakers who live more than 50 miles from Denver. The hike of $33 per day when lawmakers are in Denver is included in a routine legislative accounting bill. The total taxpayer cost for the per diem hike is some $189,000 a year.

A pay raise? No way, senators from both parties argued Thursday. They cringed at the suggestion they’re padding their own pockets.

Republican Senate Leader Bill Cadman pointed out that lawmakers’ pay is not going up, just reimbursement for expenses. He took the podium to bitterly condemn press accounts calling the change a “pay hike,” saying the public has misunderstood the accounting bill.

“And we wonder why people are confused about what we do for them,” Cadman said.

Cadman’s counterpart, Senate Democratic Leader John Morse, argued that the per diem hike is scheduled to go up under current law, and that the bill before the Senate on Tuesday only rectified the books.

“If this bill were to fail, and there has been a lot of discussion … (the per diem hike) still goes into effect July 1. The money would just have to come from somewhere else,” Morse said.

Some lawmakers have voted against the accounting bill, if only to make a statement. The bill passed the House 34-28, an unusually narrow margin. In the Senate, Democratic Sen. Jeanne Nicholson rose to say she couldn’t support the bill including the per diem hike.

“We know that many of the people in Colorado are still struggling financially,” said Nicholson.

Nicholson was not alone in voting against the accounting bill, but a roll call on the measure was not taken, making it impossible to say how each senator voted. A more formal vote is pending, after which the accounting bill goes to the desk of Gov. John Hickenlooper, who has also defended the per diem hike.

“I realize it’s politically unpopular, but I think it’s probably the right thing to do,” Hickenlooper said last week.

LINK: House Bill 1301

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Sen. Jeanne Nicholson would receive a higher per diem because she lives outside metro Denver. Nicholson lives close enough to Denver that her per diem would not change.

– By Kristen Wyatt, AP Writer

Associated Press writer Ivan Moreno contributed to this report

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