JUNEAU — Expense payments to members of the Alaska Legislature surpassed $2.4 million during the regular session and the first two special sessions of 2019, according to a tally released last week by the Legislative Affairs Agency.
In August, Gov. Mike Dunleavy said he anticipates a third special session this fall.
The Legislature’s per diem payments have been an annual source of controversy, with some Alaskans accusing lawmakers of excess and others defending the system as necessary to allow Alaskans to serve in public office without the expenses being a financial drain.
Rep. Neal Foster, D-Nome, claimed the most per diem: $51,642 across the regular session and both special sessions. Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, claimed the least among lawmakers who were eligible: $35,032. Juneau’s three lawmakers are ineligible for per diem.
The amounts paid so far this year are roughly equivalent to those paid in 2017, when lawmakers were in session for more days but received a lower per-day rate.
Legislators earn $50,400 per year in salary and receive the tax-free daily per diem for food, housing and other essentials while they are away from home. Lawmakers must apply for the per diem; they do not receive it automatically. The daily rate is chained to the federal government’s standard: In Juneau, $287 per day from Jan. 1 through April 15, then up to $307 per day until Sept. 15. After that, it drops to $287 per day again.
By phone, Shower said he’s not opposed to per diem. “It’s there for a reason, however, I do believe that when I am not physically in Juneau, I should not be getting per diem,” he said.
In his case, a job with FedEx forced his absence for portions of the extended session, and he also attended a family reunion. Shower was among six non-Juneau lawmakers who did not take per diem during the two special sessions. The others were Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski; Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer; Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake; Sen. Natasha von Imhof, R-Anchorage; and Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage. Eleven lawmakers did not claim per diem during the first special session; 12 did not in the second session.
Though he claimed the least per diem, Shower said it still serves a vital role. If someone’s only job is being a legislator, or they’re a single parent, they might not have the financial wherewithal to refuse it.
“I do have a military retirement check that helps us get by when I’m not doing my FedEx job,” he said. “I’m in a different boat.”
That didn’t keep him from occasionally sleeping in his office to save money, however, and he’s not against a second look at the amount paid per day.
Foster, co-chairman of the House Finance Committee, did not respond to a request for comment through a House Majority spokesman.
In 2018, the State Officers Compensation Commission eliminated per diem for lawmakers who live within 50 miles of the Legislature’s meeting place. With no special session outside of Juneau this year (an attempt to call one in Wasilla failed for lack of legislative support), that means only Rep. Sara Hannan, D-Juneau; Andi Story, D-Juneau; and Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, went entirely without per diem this year.
During the statutory 90-day session, per diem payments amounted to $27,180 for those who took the standard amount. Going to the constitutional 121-day limit added another $9,362. A handful of lawmakers took less than those amounts during the regular session: Reps. Sharon Jackson, R-Wasilla; DeLena Johnson, R-Palmer; and Sens. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage; Chris Birch, R-Anchorage; and Mike Shower, R-Wasilla.
Last year, lawmakers approved legislation that allows no per diem after the 121st day unless lawmakers have passed an operating budget by that point. Lawmakers didn’t approve an operating budget until nearly a month later, but the joint House-Senate Legislative Council subsequently approved retroactive payments. Those payments mean last year’s legislation doesn’t matter in the final accounting.
Travel expenses reported
A separate report provided by the Legislative Affairs Agency lists lawmakers’ state-paid out-of-state travel this year. Because of the length of this year’s regular and special sessions, state-paid travel was limited. For all 60 lawmakers, out-of-state travel costs amounted to less than $50,000, and no state-paid international travel was reported.
Ten lawmakers are shown to have attended the National Conference of State Legislatures summit in Nashville, Tennessee, in early August. Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, spent the least to attend the summit, billing $856 for an Aug. 1-4 trip. Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, billed the most, $4,470 for a seven-day stay. Stevens did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.