It turns out there’s one issue that can spur the Alaska Legislature to swift, unanimous action. Even contrarians such as Rep. David Eastman and Sen. Lora Reinbold find themselves on the same page with the rest of their fellow legislators when it comes to dealing with this important problem. Unfortunately, that issue is legislators’ own pay.
A few days ago, a bill that blocked a legislative pay cut went into effect, having sped through both the Alaska House and Senate in only three days from introduction to final passage. For those unfamiliar with the usual course of events in the Legislature, it’s very uncommon for most bills to pass even one chamber in less time than several weeks. This is partly by design; the lawmaking process is intended to give ample time to hear pros and cons of proposed legislation, as well as give the public time to weigh in. It’s also partly due to the fact that it’s very easy to slow bills down — holding them up in committees, encouraging extensive public testimony, offering a slew of amendments that must be debated before passage — and difficult to speed that process up unless the vast majority of legislators agree.
But when it comes to legislators’ paychecks, the process seems to run in fast-forward. The Legislature was moving to block the recommendation of a compensation commission that had recommended a pay alteration that would have decreased legislators’ total compensation by about $11,000 per year. Under the plan, base salaries for legislators would actually have increased – from $50,400 per year to $64,000 – but per diem compensation would have shrunk from $307 per day to $100. The net result would have been a total pay decrease from $87,547 to $76,100 for a legislator who claimed the maximum per diem allowance for the constitutional 121-day regular session.
There are problems with the way legislators’ pay is structured, and we’ll get into that. But many Alaskans are justifiably upset over what they see as abuse of the per diem system, and legislators aren’t helping themselves by putting their pay ahead of the many other issues they need to deal with this year.
The per diem fiasco
Anger over legislators’ per diem compensation has been percolating for years, particularly recently, when several special sessions have been called after the regular session expired. Extra sessions mean extra per diem, which quickly runs into the hundreds of thousands of dollars when multiplied by 60 members of the Legislature.
The compensation commission — at least partially — was on the right track in seeking to restructure legislator pay as it did. At $50,400, legislators’ base pay is well below the roughly $77,000 median income for Alaska households, and it hasn’t seen an increase in more than a decade. The per diem helps cover that gap — and then some, in some cases — but it’s a perverse incentive for lawmakers, as it effectively encourages taking longer to do the state’s business.
Ironically, the per diem system grew out of public unwillingness to keep legislators’ pay at par with increases in the cost of living. According to the compensation commission’s 2009 report, “It is a system that has evolved because of the recurring political difficulty of raising the base legislative salary,” — which, at that time, was a scant $24,000, and had been so for 17 years.
A better solution
The per diem system is long overdue for reform. But simply removing it would result in legislators being poorly compensated, and thus easier targets for corruption and pay-to-play schemes — and it might also dissuade worthy candidates earning a far better wage in the private sector from considering public service.
The compensation commission was right to pair the per diem decrease with a base salary increase, in a recognition of that reality. But keeping the per diem system at all will only lead to more abuse of it down the road.
What about a different compensation system — a higher base salary, paired with a bonus paid only if legislators pass operating and capital budgets during the 121-day regular session? That way, instead of having a financial incentive to stonewall progress and lollygag, legislators would have ample reason to finish the people’s business expeditiously. And, unlike the per diem system, the new pay structure would be relatively simple for the public to understand, reducing the perception that legislators are hiding the ball with regard to their compensation.
Skeptics of such a system might argue it would lead legislators to rush their work, leading to poor budgeting and other bills getting ignored. But a similar system is in place in the judicial system for Superior Court judges, and it has helped them finish their caseloads in a timely manner. If anything, such a pay structure might help ensure time in Juneau is spent efficiently, encouraging legislators to stay in session and finish their work rather than having pro forma sessions on weekends as dozens of lawmakers fly the coop.
We can do much better than our current system for compensating legislators, we just have to focus on a pay structure that gives incentive for good, efficient work. If we want legislators to do better, we shouldn’t focus on trying to punish them — we should give them a fair incentive to do the people’s work. For their part, legislators should recognize that rejecting pay system changes immediately, unanimously and out of hand looks terrible to Alaskans who feel their compensation is broken. A better solution is possible, but it will take earnest work by the public and legislators both to get there.