The antics this past week surrounding the commission responsible for recommending pay rates for legislators, the governor and other high-level state officials resembled something out of a banana republic. The group’s initial recommendation, that executive branch salaries see major increases while those of legislators would remain flat, was swiftly rejected by lawmakers earlier this month. Then, early last week, Gov. Mike Dunleavy summarily replaced all five of the commissioners with no explanation. This was followed by a lightning round of appointments and a hastily called meeting Wednesday where, without public notice or any meaningful debate, the group’s new members signed off on big raises for not only the governor and commissioners, but legislators as well.
It’s a change that’s well justified by the history of the issue — legislators haven’t seen a pay raise since 2010 — but that took place in a way virtually guaranteed to further damage trust between state lawmakers and the Alaskans they serve.
Legislators’ current salary is $50,400 per year, and although that figure swells significantly due to per diem payments and compensated moving expenses (in recent years, average total compensation per legislator was $85,400), it’s a salary that lags well behind Alaska’s 2020 average wage of $61,116 — and even further behind what white-collar professionals similar to legislators make in the private sector. The result has been that many legislators don’t treat their elected position as their primary job, with some missing important votes to work their jobs outside the Legislature.
Low pay for legislators can cause problems in several ways: It can increase susceptibility to bribes or quid-pro-quo agreements with power brokers, and it can also shut out those who aren’t independently wealthy (which is already an issue given the greater ability of the rich to self-fund their campaigns). As with many of us in the private sector, inflation and other cost-of-living pressures have eroded legislators’ effective wage, and there’s a strong case that a pay raise was overdue. State government being what it is, however, legislators and Dunleavy managed to accomplish that goal in a way that’s sure to outrage Alaskans for its absolute disregard for transparency and the public process.
There’s no good reason why the governor had to abruptly remove all members of the salary commission and replace them with ones who immediately recommended a big pay hike at their first meeting. There’s no good reason why the new commissioners waived the 20-day public notice requirement for their meeting, leaving ordinary Alaskans completely in the dark that a 67% raise for legislators and 20% raises for the governor and his cabinet were about to be under discussion. And “under discussion” is itself a charitable way to refer to what happened, as the elapsed time from the new commissioners sitting down together for the first time to passing the salary recommendation to adjourning took place in 15 minutes flat.
Any reasonable person witnessing the process would be likely to conclude that the saga was elaborate theater. Despite commissioners’ protestations that they hadn’t spoken to legislators (after saying the Legislature was where they got the idea) and the governor’s office insisting that commissioners acted on their own, the whole dog-and-pony show sure looked like what would have happened if the governor and legislators had worked out a mutually beneficial deal to achieve pay raises for both sides. Ironically, that’s the kind of self-dealing that the ostensibly independent salary commission was established to avoid.
It would have been so easy to have the whole process play out according to the rules instead of waiving them and rushing salary hikes through without any public input whatsoever. Yet the message instead was that the one thing legislators and Dunleavy can agree on is raising their own pay, and they’re willing to circumvent the guardrails of the public process to do it as quickly as possible. It’s clear that when motivated by their personal self-interest, our leaders can take quick and decisive action in a matter of minutes. Meanwhile, pesky little issues like the Permanent Fund dividend, education outcomes, violence against women and a long-term fiscal solution remain unresolved after decades of debate.
It’s doubly a shame because of the harm it does to public trust in lawmakers. And it will no doubt sunder Alaskans’ interest in truly innovative reform of legislative pay, such as higher pay rates coupled with term limits to encourage high-quality candidates while simultaneously keeping them from stagnating in career-long terms. By putting the pieces in place to reward themselves in the short term — even if the change is indeed justified — Dunleavy and legislators have killed the public’s appetite for a conversation about better solutions for lawmakers’ pay.