The legislative pay hike initially sought in the Senate version of the budget was described as an increase for "in-district" expenses. But it was nothing more than a backdoor salary bump, and apparently the full Senate recognized it as such when members voted Tuesday to reject the $12,000 subterfuge. Good for them.

The skids had been quietly greased to provide the pay increase through a proviso inserted during committee deliberations. It would have doubled the expense checks for legislators - House and Senate - to $24,000. That's in addition to their $10,400 salaries.

The "in-district" expense was created years ago as a backdoor pay hike, and the latest proposal to increase it was just another effort to supplement legislative salaries without having to call it that. Certainly, there is potential political fallout for legislators who vote to raise their own paychecks.

Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, made the point that legislators haven't received a raise since 1995, while noting that the price of gas has tripled since then. Consequently, it costs more to travel senatorial districts that can span multiple counties, he said.

Well, things are tough all over. Just ask the local governments whose share of state funding would have been cut to pay for the $2 million expense of the pay increase.

That potential hardship was recognized by a former Charleston County councilman, Republican Sen. Paul Thurmond, who initiated an amendment to return the money to the local government fund.

If legislators want to raise their pay, they should be up front about it.

They should be willing to explain to the taxpayers why they deserve a raise, even while acknowledging their additional legislative emoluments of per diem, retirement benefits and mileage.

And, of course, in making their case for salary hikes to the public, those lawmakers should be prepared to duck and cover.

The better argument is for legislators to spend less time in Columbia.

The state constitution envisions legislators getting paid for a 40-day session. But the sessions now stretch from January into June. If lawmakers could reduce the session, they'd be less likely to feel a financial pinch.

And there would be an added benefit to the public - less opportunity for legislative mischief like this backdoor pay hike.