Alaska's budget crisis may have been hard on the dividend checks of Alaskans, but it hasn't been hard on the expense accounts of state legislators.
Fourteen lawmakers have collected more than $40,000 each to cover their food and lodging over six months in Juneau, including three months of extra time and two special sessions — even though legislators' actual expenses can be far less. The daily expense rate they could claim for the past two and a half months: $295.
The 60 lawmakers in the House and Senate have been paid a total of $2.2 million, or an average of about $37,000 each, to cover expenses for the time they spent in Juneau this year, according to preliminary figures released by the Legislature's nonpartisan support agency.
Their extra time in Juneau means the total is substantially higher than in previous years, in spite of the state's massive budget deficit. And the payments come on top of the $50,400 each legislator earns as a salary.
Though the numbers are small against the state's $2.5 billion deficit, they invite questions from Alaskans who have seen government services slashed and Permanent Fund dividends reduced by lawmakers trying to fill the budget gap.
Some legislators justified the money by pointing out that as their work dragged on, their costs rose as Juneau lodging transitioned to expensive summer tourism rates. But others argued that the Legislature's per diem system — which is far more generous than the system set up for the state's executive branch — could be restructured to prod lawmakers to finish their work more quickly.
Anchorage independent Rep. Jason Grenn, like several others, suggested that expenses shouldn't be paid after the end of the regular session, which this year lasted 121 days.
"I do believe we would get our work done sooner if there wasn't per diem being claimed," Grenn said. "You can really spur some people on to do some quick, good work when you hit their pocketbook."
Grenn, a freshman who campaigned in part on reducing the Legislature's expenses, said he experienced new urgency himself when he stopped claiming per diem after the end of the regular session in May.
Over the next two months — which he spent between Juneau and Anchorage — he said he slept on friends' couches and sometimes in his office while subsisting on peanut butter sandwiches, ramen noodles and bananas.
"I ate like I was in college again," he said.
Grenn was the only non-Juneau House member to collect less than $25,000 in per diem this year; the 56 other out-of-town lawmakers have each collected at least $30,000 with the exception of Wasilla GOP Sen. Mike Dunleavy, who has claimed $26,900.
The three Juneau lawmakers are eligible for a reduced per diem, and it's also taxed as income. Each received $23,000 for the 121-day regular session, while Democratic Rep. Justin Parish hasn't claimed any additional payments for the two subsequent special sessions, and Democratic Sen. Dennis Egan has claimed $2,200 for the first special session and none in the second.
Rep. Sam Kito III, also a Democrat, claimed $6,000 between the two special sessions — including $221.25 for a Saturday in early July when he served as temporary House speaker at a 2-minute floor session. Kito didn't respond to a request for comment.
Multiple bills to restructure the per diem system are currently stuck in legislative committees. Lawmakers also considered, then ultimately rejected, a separate proposal this year to sharply cut their expense payments through the state budget.
Anchorage Democratic Sen. Bill Wielechowski has introduced the same proposal during each of the past two two-year legislative terms, without success. He wants to cut off lawmakers' per diem payments after the 90th day of the regular legislative session — the flexible deadline set by voters in 2006 — if lawmakers haven't passed an operating budget by then.
There's similar legislation in the House from Palmer Republican Rep. DeLena Johnson.
The bills could have saved the state treasury more than $800,000 this year; lawmakers took more than two extra months after the 90-day deadline before passing a spending plan. But Wielechowski's Senate Bill 13 was never given a hearing by the Republican-led Senate majority, whose members chaired the Senate State Affairs Committee to which it was referred.
Dunleavy, the Wasilla Republican who chaired the committee through early April before he left the caucus in a dispute over the budget, didn't respond to requests for comment. Anchorage Republican Sen. Kevin Meyer, who took over the committee's gavel from Dunleavy in April, didn't return a phone message, but he said in a text message that he would hold a hearing on Wielechowski's legislation if he remains chair next year.
Johnson's House Bill 241 also didn't get a hearing in the House State Affairs Committee, chaired by Sitka Democratic Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins. But the committee did hear, and advance, separate legislation from Kreiss-Tomkins that would transfer the Legislature's power to set its own per diem to an existing compensation commission whose members are chosen by the governor with help from the House speaker and Senate president.
The two lawmakers who have claimed the most in expense payments this year both said they're open to reviewing the Legislature's per diem system.
Anchorage Republican Rep. Charisse Millett, whose $45,700 in per diem claims topped the House even though she's in the minority caucus, supported the proposal to reduce the payments through the budget. But she added that she doesn't think the payments make lawmakers any more prone to wasting time.
Millett said she didn't come out ahead from the cash she collected toward the end of her time in Juneau. Hotel rates were $200 a night or more, and Millett said she had to move between different hotels where she could find rooms. She would much rather have been at home with her family, she added.
"I kept my clothes at my office and would carry my suitcase back and forth to take showers wherever I was staying," said Millett, the leader of the House GOP minority. "I'm just going to tell you: That's not glamorous."
Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, who led senators with $44,500 in per diem claims, acknowledged that the payments covered more than the expenses of living on his boat — for which he pays up to $675 a month for mooring and electricity.
He said the Legislature is due for a discussion about per diem. But he added that to attract qualified candidates for the Legislature, any reductions may have to come with an increase to lawmakers' $50,400 salary, which hasn't increased since 2010.
"Fifty-thousand dollars is ridiculous when you're trying to ask people to make multibillion-dollar decisions and not get leveraged, pushed around — or you want to get people elected who can digest the economic information and make decisions that are in the interest of the state treasury," Stedman said. "You're not getting that for $50,000."
A salary increase is also the approach favored by Gregg Erickson, the former publisher of the Alaska Budget Report. Lawmakers should be well-compensated, Erickson said, adding that there isn't a perfect way to set their pay. But the current system "makes it worse," he said.
"Let me ask you: If they gave you an extra $295 for every day you spent away from home, would it make a difference to you?" Erickson said. "Per diem is not a good way to do it."
Stedman's Senate Republican majority caucus hasn't agreed with a push by the House to cut the per diem rate by more than half — though Senate majority members' claims during the two special sessions have been the lowest of all four legislative caucuses.
Senate Majority Leader Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, said the House's vote to reduce per diem was actually a "game of chicken," adding that House members privately asked the Senate afterward to reverse the cut.
Micciche argued that the Legislature's current system functions adequately during the regular 90-day session, though he said he'd be open to examining changes to make sure lawmakers aren't pocketing extra cash while staying in Juneau for extra time.
"I'd like to believe that there are not legislators that benefit financially from dragging out the end of the session. I know, unfortunately, that is the case with some," he said. "But they have to face their own constituents — who I hope are taking note of the totals on these lists."