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Alaska’s citizen Legislature is now pretty much full-time

When Adam Wool, a Fairbanks bar owner and father of two, first ran for the Legislature two years ago, he thought he'd be able to handle the workload: a scheduled 90-day session and some constituent work during the interim.

Instead, on Friday, he was preparing to return to Juneau, where lawmakers have worked almost continuously since mid-January. That's after a partisan budget dispute in the 2015 session forced Wool to work from mid-January to mid-June, with another two-week stint in Juneau in the fall to work on gas-pipeline legislation.

"If I knew it was a six-month-a-year job, I wouldn't have signed up," Wool said.

In theory, the demands of public office should be stretching Alaska's part-time lawmakers to the breaking point. But the ranks of the so-called "citizen Legislature" are actually filled with full-time politicians, with just a small fraction holding regular jobs.

In fact, Wool and others see the Legislature's professionalization as one of the contributors to the gridlock in Juneau, putting less pressure on lawmakers to finish their work each year. There's even an incentive to delay in the form of the $250 daily payments each member gets for lodging and other expenses while they're in session.

"I think some people are happy to get that check," Wool said. "They don't have a business to get back to."

There's no objective measure of the degree of a legislature's professionalization, said Brenda Erickson, a senior research analyst at the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures, headquartered in Denver.

But her organization categorizes Alaska as one of just 10 states with a "full-time" or "full-time lite" legislative branch, based on lawmakers' compensation, the amount of time they work and the number of staff members they employ. Only nine states pay their legislators higher salaries than the $50,400 earned by Alaska's House and Senate members, according to the organization's figures.

"People want a citizen Legislature. They want people to be average Joes," said Clive Thomas, a former political science professor at University of Alaska Southeast. But, he added, "It's really not that way."

Lawmakers nonetheless make frequent references to their membership in a citizen Legislature; the 25-year-old preamble to the the state's Legislative Ethics Act refers to "the public's commitment to a part-time, citizen Legislature" that requires lawmakers "drawn from all parts of society."

Delegates to the state's Constitutional Convention debated the demands that would be placed on legislators and whether to offer salaries for part-time or full-time service.

Most convention delegates assumed lawmakers wouldn't work full-time, year-round, and some spoke of their desire to discourage "career legislators," but no specific reference was made to a "citizen Legislature," according to a 1987 report on legislative compensation.

In the first few years of statehood, legislative salaries were set between $2,500 and $3,000, with $35 extra for each day for expenses. There was no way to "come out ahead" as a married, family man through legislative service, said one of Alaska's best-known old-timers, Clem Tillion.

Tillion is a former House member and senator first elected in 1962, just over three years after statehood, when he said most members held other jobs.

"There were carpenters, bus drivers, lawyers — they were all working," said Tillion, 91.

Tillion, a commercial fisherman when he was elected, said things changed once oil money began flowing into the state, allowing lawmakers to earn larger salaries and hire aides.

Last year, only a half-dozen members of Alaska's 20-member Senate reported more than $25,000 in income from jobs they held outside the Legislature.

One senator, Chugiak Republican Bill Stoltze, simply listed his occupation as "legislator" in a state directory; Anchorage Democratic Sen. Berta Gardner described herself as a "state senator and grandmother." Others, like Republicans Sens. Lesil McGuire of Anchorage and Anna MacKinnon of Eagle River, didn't list occupations at all.

Two of the senators with outside jobs — Republicans Kevin Meyer of Anchorage and Peter Micciche of Soldotna — work for a company with a direct stake in the outcome of the legislative session, oil company ConocoPhillips.

A spokeswoman for ConocoPhillips in 2007 referred to Alaska's "citizen Legislature" in dismissing concerns about potential conflicts of interest among its employees holding public office.

But in fact, "you can't have a normal job or a normal life" if you're serving in the Legislature, said Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau.

"We serve constituents daily. It's not just a legislative session," Egan said. "Thank God I'm retired."

Wool, the Fairbanks Democrat and bar owner, said the Legislature would function better and more efficiently if more lawmakers were connected to the "workaday world." Some of his own Democratic colleagues, he added, might have had second thoughts about their decision last month to block Gov. Bill Walker's bill to restructure the Permanent Fund from advancing out of the House Finance Committee and onto the floor — a move that all but guaranteed Walker would bring lawmakers back to Juneau for next week's special session.

"If they had a job to get to, they might have voted that bill to go on to the floor," Wool said.

"Having employees really opens my eyes to what working Alaskans deal with," he added. "I can't not pay rent because business is slow one month. I don't get a tax credit from the state because I lost money."

One legislator who makes public office her sole focus says it's what she signed up for.

"We are facing the most challenging fiscal situation since our state's inception," said Sen. Mia Costello, an Anchorage Republican who describes herself as a "soccer mom" outside of politics. "And so I think there's an expectation that we do what it takes."

Costello left her job as a tutor when she first ran for the state House, she said.

Now she considers her work in the Legislature her career, she said. The job is no small commitment; Costello said she works the majority of every day outside of the session.

And when lawmakers are meeting in Juneau, she has to spend time away from her home in Anchorage, where her children are being cared for by her mother-in-law, who came from Fairbanks for the entire session, Costello said.

"I wish it was easier," said Costello. "I think we'd have more people willing to step up and serve in this capacity if the capital were closer to the people, and the personal sacrifices weren't as big factors as they are now."

For legislative leaders, the demands are even greater. House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, said he's asked to appear at meetings or events by "countless folks."

"Some people's understanding of the Legislature is that you're in Juneau for 90 days and that's all you do. And that's just not true," said Chenault, whose oil-field business, Qwick Construction, is currently sitting dormant.

The notion that Alaska employs full-time legislators or career politicians might make the public uneasy, said Thomas, the former political science professor. But it does provide Alaskans with some benefits, he said.

Part-time lawmakers with less time and fewer staffers end up ceding some of their power. And "power doesn't go away," he said.

"If you take power away from legislators, it goes to lobbyists or the administration," said Thomas. A strong legislative branch, he added, "puts a check on a strong executive, and it enables people to look at things in depth that they wouldn't be able to if they were making $200 a month."

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