House considers slashing daily expense payments to Alaska lawmakers

JUNEAU — A panel of Alaska House members is proposing to slash by three-fourths their $213 daily payments for in-session expenses and to completely eliminate the special $160 per diem for Juneau's three legislators.

The unanimous, bipartisan vote Thursday evening would cut each non-Juneau lawmaker's payment to $4,800 for the standard 90-day session, down from the $19,170 they get at the current rate. Juneau lawmakers' per diem is taxed, unlike their colleagues', and paid at 75 percent of the full rate.

[Juneau's three lawmakers live at home. So why are they each collecting $160 a day for expenses?]

The move comes as legislators have faced growing criticism of their own expenses amid Alaska's budget crisis. The state's $3 billion deficit has forced steep cuts to state services, and it has lawmakers considering proposals to help pay for government by reducing residents' Permanent Fund dividend checks.

The vote on the daily expense payments was spurred by an initial budget amendment from Anchorage Rep. Charisse Millett, the House Republican minority leader, during a budget subcommittee meeting Thursday evening. She proposed eliminating the Juneau lawmakers' payments alone, for a savings of $43,000.

But the only House members affected by that proposal were a pair of Democrats, Juneau Reps. Sam Kito III and Justin Parish. And after Millett made her proposal, Anchorage Democratic Rep. Chris Tuck, the House majority leader, one-upped her with an amendment to her amendment — to reduce all lawmakers' daily payments by the same $160.

"Fair is fair," Tuck said.

His surprise proposal had committee members doing iPhone arithmetic before they voted to support it.

The cut must still be approved by the House Finance Committee, the full House, and the state Senate. It would save $860,000 among the 60 legislators in the House and Senate, and it wouldn't kick in until next year's session.

The reduction is a tiny fraction of the state's $3 billion deficit. But subcommittee members said they wanted to send a message to the public — that lawmakers are willing to make the same kind of sacrifices being forced on Alaskans during the state's recession.

"I think we need to set an example. We need to gain the public trust back on things like this," said Millett, the majority leader in 2015 and 2016. She added: "Shame on me for not doing it last year. It gives the public a bad taste in their mouth."

House leaders have already instituted other austerity measures this year, including increased prices at the legislative cafeteria and cuts to their budget for aides' salaries.

And the House subcommittee adopted several other reductions Thursday, cutting roughly $1.2 million more from their $65 million budget, much of it from salaries and travel.

One line item that remained sacrosanct: the subsidized legislative cafeteria, which Millett proposed to shutter for savings of an estimated $80,000.

House majority members on the committee rejected the idea, saying the eatery — in which only lawmakers and ex-lawmakers are allowed — was a sanctuary that encouraged bipartisan collaboration.

Tuck said he was willing to pay double the current prices for food and soft drinks to keep the cafeteria open.

Anchorage Republican Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, who controls the cafeteria as chair of the House Rules Committee and already raised food prices earlier this year, said a further hike was likely.

She told Tuck: "You may end up paying double."

Nathaniel Herz

Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He’s been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at ADN and Alaska Public Media. He’s reported around the state and loves cross-country skiing.