Alaska lawmakers allowed big hike in expense payments, thanks to the feds

JUNEAU — Alaska lawmakers can get a $2,850 pay increase this week, courtesy of the federal government.

The daily payment schedule for legislators' food and living expenses jumped to $275 from the previous rate of $213, effective March 1. It will remain at that level through the end of their 90-day session in April.

If they go into overtime — either the 121-day session allowed by the Alaska Constitution or a special session — their per diem will rise to $295 on May 1 under a seasonal increase.

Some legislators said they'd declined the raise. Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, said he "found a way" to turn it down, and suspected that other legislators did the same.

The 29.1 percent hike to $275 is tied to a change to the U.S. Department of Defense's federal per diem rate, which is used by lawmakers under a policy set by the Legislative Councils, a bipartisan House-Senate committee that functions as the Legislature's housekeeping body.

[Read the memo on the per diem increases]

Juneau legislators, while living at home, collect per diem at 75 percent of their colleagues' rate.

Most executive branch employees get $78 a day on long-term assignments like the Legislature's 90-day session.

The increase, arriving amid the state's budget crisis, came to some lawmakers' chagrin. Asked about it Friday, Anchorage Democratic Rep. Chris Tuck, the majority leader, chuckled and said it was an example of why the payments needed to be reduced.

"I think we're going to have to have Leg Council take a look at that and definitely make some decisions, this year, to cut our per diem," Tuck said.

A small panel of House members last week approved a 75 percent reduction to the per diem payments — a move proposed by Tuck. But Homer Republican Rep. Paul Seaton, co-chair of the House Finance Committee, reversed the decision Monday, saying the issue should be tackled by the Legislative Council instead.

The Legislative Council has scheduled a hearing on the payments next week.