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Deficit-reduction bills from Walker would freeze pay for 2,250 state workers

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published January 23, 2017

JUNEAU — Alaska Gov. Bill Walker has unveiled legislation to freeze wages for about 2,250 non-union state workers over the next two years — a move that would fulfill a deficit-reduction pledge Walker made when he introduced his budget proposal last month.

House Bill 71 and Senate Bill 31, if passed by the Legislature, would cancel annual "merit increases" received by state workers like high-level Walker appointees and legislative staffers, as well as employees of agencies like the Alaska Permanent Fund Corp. and the Alaska Gasline Development Corp.

Another 2,800 university workers would be affected but their salaries are already frozen under the university system's next budget, which takes effect in July, said spokeswoman Robbie Graham.

The legislation would also give Walker authority to turn down a portion of his own $145,000 salary — discretion he currently does not have.

He said in his budget announcement last month that he'd give up one-third of his pay. But Katie Marquette, Walker's spokeswoman, said the governor needs legislative approval to do so.

Walker's legislation would cut the state budget by about $2.3 million in the next financial year, which starts in July. About $1 million would be savings categorized as "unrestricted general fund" — the yardstick typically used to measure state spending.

The potential savings is a tiny fraction of Alaska's $3 billion deficit.

But Walker said in a prepared statement Friday that he believes in "leading by example." The legislation could help appease conservative lawmakers, who, in rejecting Walker's calls for taxes and other measures to generate new state revenue, have argued that Alaska's public employees haven't suffered as much as private ones in the state's ongoing recession.

"While it won't close the fiscal gap, this legislation is a necessary part of the solution to Alaska's fiscal crisis," Walker's statement quoted him as saying.

Walker's legislation would affect less than one-fourth of the state's workforce of 24,300, since it only applies to non-union workers.

The state's unionized employees are separated into 11 separate bargaining units. Most are already working under contracts that eliminated cost-of-living raises, which are designed to help wages keep up with inflation. But many of those workers still get raises based on experience either annually or every two years, as long as their supervisors deem their performance acceptable.

Non-union workers have also seen the elimination of their cost-of-living raises. So Walker's legislation, which would cancel their experience-based raises, would hit those workers harder than unionized employees, from whom such concessions would have to be bargained.

Walker has directed the state administration department, which negotiates the state's union contracts, to push for similar concessions, said Deputy Commissioner Leslie Ridle.

Even as Walker introduced his pay freeze legislation, some of his recent hiring decisions were being criticized by political opponents, who said the moves didn't square with the governor's calls for austerity.

After replacing his chief of staff, Jim Whitaker, in December, Walker let Whitaker take another job, senior adviser, with the same $173,000 salary. And Walker is hiring a political consultant, John-Henry Heckendorn, as a new special assistant, at a salary of $97,500 — which former Alaska Republican Party spokeswoman Suzanne Downing described on her conservative news website, Must Read Alaska, as "beefing up campaign staff on public dime."

Walker's communications director, Grace Jang, said in an interview Monday that Whitaker's salary is now "under discussion."

She also pointed out that several members of Walker's administration are leaving their jobs, which Jang said would save at least $100,000 on an annual basis.

Among the departures is Paulette Schuerch, who was Walker's tribal affairs adviser; her responsibilities will be assumed largely by Barbara Blake, an adviser to Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott.

Marcia Davis, one of two deputy chiefs of staff, is retiring at the end of February and Walker isn't planning on replacing her, Jang said. Ed King, a special assistant in Walker's office, transferred to a position in the Department of Natural Resources, while Ty Keltner, a policy analyst, is also "on his way out," Jang said.

More departures are planned, said Jang, without specifying whose.

"This is just the beginning," she said.

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