Politics

A new law will give thousands of Alaska state employees a pay raise

With no signature from Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy, a bill became law this week granting pay increases to thousands of state employees — including the governor’s staff members.

House Bill 226, at a cost of around $36 million per year, will give 20% pay increases to state attorneys, 15% increases to court employees and 5% increases to other state employees not represented by a union, including legislative and executive branch staffers and those working in various departments. The increases will go into effect in October.

Dunleavy, a Republican running for reelection this year, did not sign or veto the bill by the Aug. 1 deadline, which means the bill became law without his signature. In an interview Tuesday, he said he supported the bill but didn’t see a need for a bill signing ceremony.

“We saw this more as an administrative function, different than other bills, so we let it become law,” Dunleavy said.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy

The bill will give members of Dunleavy’s staff a 5% pay increase. Asked if that factored into his support for the bill, Dunleavy said, “not really.”

“It was the need to increase the salaries of our attorneys that haven’t had an increase in years and years,” Dunleavy said. “Given the environment that we’re in where it’s taught to get good folks to stay in a job and work, we thought it was a prudent thing to do for the state of Alaska.”

In the governor’s race this year, Dunleavy faces multiple challengers from both the left and right. State Rep. Andy Josephson, an Anchorage Democrat who sponsored the legislation, said election year politicking may have figured into Dunleavy’s decision to let the bill go into effect without action or comment.

Dunleavy “wants the result but he doesn’t want the attachment to the result,” said Josephson, who is also up for reelection this year. “He’s a conservative person. He’s running for governor against other conservatives and he doesn’t want — while people are suffering hardships — he doesn’t want to be giving pay raises, and rather substantial ones, to public employees.”

[With new law, Alaska is closing gaps for prosecuting sex crimes and ‘no will mean no,’ officials say]

According to an estimate from the Office of Management and Budget, the state’s more than 540 attorneys — including those employed in the Department of Law and other state departments — will get a 20% pay increase under the bill. Other court employees, numbering more than 780, will get a 15% pay increase. Other exempt and partially exempt state employees — including more than 500 legislative staffers, and hundreds working under different state departments — will be eligible for a 5% pay increase.

A total of around 2,800 state employees will be impacted by the bill.

The same estimate pegged the number of Dunleavy staffers at 178, but Dunleavy spokesperson Jeff Turner said the number of employees was 121 as of July 15 and budgeted to be 158 in the current fiscal year. Some of those politically appointed staffers already earn six-figure salaries; whether they will remain in their positions is uncertain as they may not be offered a job if the governor is voted out of office.

Going forward, state employees covered under the bill, who are not unionized, will be eligible for pay raises whenever workers in the Alaska Public Employees Association receive a pay hike through their bargaining process.

The pay increases come amid high inflation, which according to one estimate has driven a 12% year-over-year increase in prices in Alaska’s urban areas.

Josephson

Josephson said the bill is critical to recruiting and keeping state attorneys, and ensuring court employees are adequately paid. The bill was later amended to include legislative staffers and politically appointed executive branch employees. Josephson said that made it easier to get the buy-in needed for the measure to advance through the legislative process.

“Legislators are human beings and they don’t want to go back to their staff and say, ‘Yeah, I didn’t vote to increase your salary,’ ” Josephson said.

The bill passed the House just days before the legislative session ended by a 23-17 vote, with some of the chamber’s conservative members opposed. It passed the Senate in a 16-2 vote. Because of a procedural legislative vote failure, the pay increases will not go into effect until the end of October.

Rep. Sarah Vance, a Republican from Homer who voted against the bill, said on the House floor that she supported pay increases for state attorneys but was opposed to the increase for executive branch and legislative staffers, among others.

“I haven’t heard how all of those employees are creating this public emergency,” she said. “My staffer makes a higher salary than my husband does — the same income that has supported a family of six for quite some time. I think we need to reconsider what a livable wage is.”

Josephson said the bill was born after he learned that state attorneys start around $60,000 — similar to the pay of his legislative staffers.

“So these people have done three years of graduate work and passed a bar exam, and they’re making what a staff person makes,” Josephson said. “We just heard data that the turnover was incredible. And it was like, ‘This is absurd.’ ”

Lawmakers supporting the bill said stagnating attorney salaries have resulted from an ongoing effort to hold the line on state spending due to the state’s fiscal challenges — but that effort has come at a cost.

“This bill I see as the single most important thing we can do for public safety in Alaska,” said Rep. Matt Claman, an Anchorage Democrat, adding that the lack of skilled prosecutors has led to a higher rate of acquittals in criminal cases in the state.

Josephson said the number of vacancies for state attorneys meant it was difficult to attract skilled prosecutors. “I mean, any attorney with a license and a pulse could walk in there, and they’d probably get hired, and there are only a handful of them skilled enough to do a murder trial,” he said.

The Department of Law reported a 20% turnover rate among prosecutors in 2021, and in a February memo, the department listed recruitment and retention as one of the criminal division’s greatest challenges. The challenge is one of the factors that have contributed to the number of pending criminal cases in the court system almost doubling since 2018, going from 12,386 to 20,084 in 2021.

“There’s little doubt that our skilled prosecutor class will grow and remain more than prior to the bill,” Josephson said Monday. “I know anecdotally that people rescinded their resignations when they heard this pay raise may come. So it’s having a real-world impact on people’s lives.”

Earlier this year, Gov. Dunleavy vetoed one-time bonuses for some of the employees covered by the bill. The vetoes eliminated nearly $6 million in recruitment and retention bonuses for employees in the state’s legal system, including the Public Defender Agency, Office of Public Advocacy and Attorney General’s Office. After announcing his vetoes, Dunleavy said he nixed the funding because those workers would get pay increases through another bill, though he did not comment specifically on House Bill 226 at the time.

“Those vetoes occurred because there are other means now through bills that were passed to be able to help pay for those folks,” Dunleavy said at a press conference in June. “You would have had two different approaches to help underwrite pay for the folks, so we only needed the bills that were passed.”

[Alaska gubernatorial candidates draw outsized contributions with fundraising limits gone]

Iris Samuels

Iris Samuels is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News focusing on state politics. She previously covered Montana for The Associated Press and wrote for the Kodiak Daily Mirror.

Sponsored