Alaska Legislature rejects higher pay, per diem restrictions

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — The Alaska Legislature on Thursday rejected a proposal that called for higher annual salaries for lawmakers but restrictions on the daily allowance they can receive during sessions.

Action came quickly: the bill to reject the recommendations was introduced in the Senate Tuesday, passed by that chamber Wednesday, 20-0, and passed 37-0 in the House on Thursday. The bill next goes to Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

Under state law, the recommendations would be adopted unless a bill rejecting them is enacted within 60 days after they are submitted. The commission secretary said they were submitted Monday.

Some legislators said the proposal seemed punitive or that keeping and tallying receipts would be burdensome. Some said it would limit who could afford to serve in the Legislature and create balance of power issues.

The recommendations were made by the Alaska State Officers Compensation Commission, which is tasked with reviewing salaries, allowances and benefits for lawmakers, the governor, lieutenant governor and department heads. The commission recommended raising the annual base salary for legislators from $50,400 to $64,000, plus capping at $100 a day the allowance they can receive during regular sessions and requiring receipts for allowance claims.

Lawmakers currently are entitled to an allowance of $307 a day, based on a federal rate, according to Jessica Geary, executive director of the Legislative Affairs Agency. The allowance can’t be claimed by a legislator if the session is held within 50 miles (80 kilometers) of their primary home. That makes the three lawmakers who are from Juneau ineligible for per diem during sessions in the capital city.

The commission also proposed that lawmakers would be eligible for a state employee per diem rate for special sessions called by a governor, which the panel’s report said would entitle them to lodging and $60 a day for meals and incidentals under current rates. Lawmakers would not be entitled to per diem for any special sessions they called themselves.

Most special sessions over the past decade have been called by a governor.

The proposals were part of a larger package that also recommended pay increases for the lieutenant governor and state department heads. Dunleavy had declined a pay increase for his position, the commission said.

Rep. Ben Carpenter, a Nikiski Republican, said he had no problem with the part calling for receipts, saying it allowed for accountability. But he said it is an inappropriate time to raise pay for executive branch officials, with work unresolved on a state fiscal plan.

He also raised concerns with the approach to per diem. He said he thinks his constituents believe he is doing a good job.

“And I do not believe that the blunt hammer that is being used to express frustration with the stalemate and the disfunction in the Legislature, of cutting per diem, is appropriate,” he said. He noted there are elections this year in which voters will have their say on legislative races.

Per diem has been a topic in recent years. Most regular sessions since 2016 have lasted 121 days and been followed by special sessions.

Voters years ago approved an initiative calling for 90-day regular sessions but the state constitution allows sessions of up to 121 days, with an option to extend by 10 days. The allowance is intended to help with costs related to living part of the year in Juneau.

The commission earlier this month voted 3-1 in favor of the recommendations. Former state Sen. Johnny Ellis said he was a “reluctant” yes and that he thought there was a “good likelihood” lawmakers would reject the recommendations as “inadequate and complicated.”

Commission member Lee Cruise voted against the recommendations. In a written dissent, he said members of the public believe lawmakers have “failed to effectively do their jobs.”

“Being a member of the state legislature is arguably one of the only jobs where the employee is financially rewarded for not only failing to get anything done, but also for taking more time to fail,” he said.

Under state law, the provisions relating to legislative pay — were they to take effect — would not have kicked in until next year.