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Alaska House, reversing itself, again proposes slashing its own expense payments

JUNEAU — The Alaska House reversed itself Thursday and approved a sharp cut in its daily expense payments for next year, while one lawmaker introduced a new proposal to let a nonpartisan commission — rather than the Legislature itself — set future rates.

By a bipartisan 32-5 vote, the House on Thursday approved a budget amendment to cut more than half of each lawmaker's per diem payments, now more than $200, for a total reduction of more than $14,000 per legislator over the course of a nominal 90-day legislative session.

Sessions have lasted much longer than 90 days in the last few years, and per diem claims have risen, though legislators' $50,400 salaries don't allow them overtime.

Rep. Jason Grenn, I-Anchorage, argues for his budget amendment to slash legislators’ daily expense payments on the House floor at the Capitol on Thursday. (Nathaniel Herz / Alaska Dispatch News)

Anchorage independent Rep. Jason Grenn, who proposed the amendment to cut per diem pay, said he wanted lawmakers to show they were willing to lead by example as they look to limit spending amid a broader state budget crisis.

"It would give ourselves the ability to go home to our districts and tell our neighbors that, 'Yes, we hear you, yes, we're with you — that we understand the monumental challenges ahead of us these next few years and that we as legislators can act in a responsible manner,' " said Grenn, who noted his family, with three children, relies on his legislative income.

The cut won't take effect, however, unless approved by the state Senate, where the Republican-led majority hasn't discussed reducing the payments.

The per diem question has dogged the House budget process for the past month, with critics arguing the rate of the payments — set by the federal government — is far more than needed to cover legislators' costs.

In February, a small committee of House leaders abruptly approved the same reduction that passed Thursday. But a few days later, Homer Republican Rep. Paul Seaton used his position as House Finance Committee co-chair to reverse the decision.

And members of the House majority coalition, which is largely Democratic, with a few Republicans and independents, subsequently voted against a Republican minority amendment to reinstate the cut. Instead, they referred the question to a newly formed House-Senate subcommittee to study the payments.

Sitka Democratic Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins speaks with legislative aides during a break from House floor debate at the Capitol on Thursday. (Nathaniel Herz / Alaska Dispatch News)

That subcommittee was pre-empted by Thursday's vote. And a new bill from Sitka Democratic Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins would take the per diem question out of lawmakers' hands almost entirely.

House Bill 181, co-sponsored by Grenn and two other coalition members, would give the authority to set per diem rates to the State Officers Compensation Commission, a citizens board with members chosen by the governor and legislative leaders.

Currently, the per diem policy is set by the Legislative Council, a bipartisan committee containing only legislators from the House and Senate.

"Per diem is a hugely messy and emotional issue and it would be nice to create an objective, thoughtful process to figure out what makes sense and what does not make sense," Kreiss-Tomkins said. "It makes sense for legislators to not set our per diem — the optics are bad, and for understandable reasons."

The legislation would give lawmakers authority to reject the commission's per diem recommendations, but not to set the per diem rate themselves.

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