A special session of the Alaska Legislature to address the state's yawning budget deficit could prove lucrative for at least a pair of Juneau lawmakers, who are continuing to claim hundreds of dollars in daily expense payments while they live at home.
Juneau Democratic Reps. Sam Kito III and Justin Parish both said in phone interviews Friday that they'll be claiming their taxable $220 daily payments this week — meant to cover lodging and meals — in spite of a slow work schedule.
"I'm speaking to you from my office and yes, I'm claiming per diem," Parish said in a phone interview. He pointed to a high school graduation speech Sunday, and several other events, when asked if he would claim expense checks through the weekend.
Asked if the payments make sense given the House's light schedule last week — in which it held just one floor session longer than four minutes and no committee hearings — Parish responded that he's "continuing to work."
Kito said he'd be claiming the expense payments for four weekdays but not the weekend.
"We were in the office for sessions and other meetings," he said. "I had staff working on a letter, I'm reviewing a letter, I have other things I'm working on. I did a television interview."
Juneau's third legislator, Democratic Sen. Dennis Egan, didn't respond to requests for comment Friday. All three collected the payments during the Legislature's 121-day regular session.
The daily payments are tiny in the context of Alaska's $2.5 billion deficit, but they've drawn new scrutiny this year as lawmakers propose cuts to state services and programs. The House has proposed slashing the payments — currently $295 and untaxed for non-Juneau legislators, though a few have requested a lower rate — by 75 percent next year, though the Senate hasn't agreed.
Many legislators left Juneau last week — the first full week of a special session called by Gov. Bill Walker in an attempt to get lawmakers to resolve the deficit.
Twenty of the 60 legislators in the House and Senate responded to emailed questions about whether they plan to ask for the expense checks this week, with most saying they would only claim them for days they were in Juneau.
Lawmakers earn an annual salary of $50,400, which isn't adjusted for special sessions. A state compensation commission set salaries at that level in 2010 — a move that came with specific caveats that lawmakers should get no additional compensation for legislative service, and that in-session per diem "shall not be considered a form of compensation."
The full cost of the per diem payments for the special session, which can run for up to 30 days, won't be known until later, since lawmakers will have to claim the payments each week.
Senate President Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, sent a memo Wednesday to his Republican-led majority asking members to end their long-term housing arrangements and to only claim per diem for days they're in Juneau.
House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, didn't respond to a request for comment Friday.
Some lawmakers who pledged to reduce their per diem while they're home pointed out that they're still on the hook for some Juneau-related expenses.
"If you're maintaining lodging as well as incidental costs, it just doesn't cover it," said Soldotna Republican Sen. Peter Micciche. "I am paying for housing when I'm not there, and that's the reason."
Lawmakers in the House and Senate have proposed legislation to cut off the expense payments if the state budget hasn't been approved after the 90th day of the regular session. But neither chamber has advanced the bills to the floor for a vote.