An independent state salary commission reversed its proposal to slash Alaska lawmakers' daily expense checks on Tuesday, instead moving to leave them in place except for when legislators are working from home.
The decision means most legislators would get to keep drawing the payments of as much as $295 a day, which can top $35,000 over the course of a year if lawmakers work past their standard 90-day deadline in Juneau.
The State Officers Compensation Commission had proposed to slice the payments by nearly three-fourths, to $78 — the same rate paid to state employees in the executive branch. The proposal would have saved the state nearly $1.5 million, which commission members said was consistent with the pay cuts and Permanent Fund dividend reductions that Alaskans have seen amid a recession and huge state budget deficit.
The commission's new proposal, preliminarily approved at a Tuesday meeting, would stop Juneau's three legislators from collecting their discounted payments entirely, costing them as much as $25,000 a year.
It also would block Anchorage-area lawmakers from collecting the per diem checks during a special session there. That happened in 2015, when two Anchorage Republican senators, Cathy Giessel and Lesil McGuire, claimed $5,352 and $7,347, respectively, after special sessions in their hometown, according to an analysis by the Alaska Public Radio Network.
The commission left intact its previous proposal to cut legislators' $50,400 salaries by 10 percent, to $45,360.
The five-member commission is made up of appointees chosen by the governor, though two are picked from lists submitted by the state Senate president and House speaker. Members met Tuesday morning at the state-owned Atwood Building in downtown Anchorage.
Its updated recommendations — amended from a previous version proposed in October — are still not final, and the commission will take public testimony before and during a subsequent meeting that hasn't been scheduled yet.
Ultimately, the commission will send its final recommendations to the Legislature, which can only block them from taking effect by passing a bill to do so within two months, which must also be signed by the governor.
One of the commission members, Duane Bannock, said he moved to reverse the initial per diem reduction because he wasn't aware how steep it would be when it was initially proposed.
"I don't think $78 a day is really the right answer," Bannock said in a phone interview after Tuesday's meeting.
Pegging legislators' per diem payments to the executive branch's rate — as Bannock was proposing to do — ended up being more complicated than he originally thought, he said. But he also suggested that he's not entirely happy to see lawmakers drawing as much as $295 a day.
"I don't like the idea of profiting off of per diem. But I appreciate the simplicity of the process that we have right now," Bannock said. "Could it be better? There's no doubt that it could be better."