Alaska Legislature

Panel defers action on Alaska legislators’ controversial expense payments

The board that sets the salaries of Alaska’s top officials will wait a year before considering whether or not to eliminate the per diem expense payments of state legislators.

The board is scheduled to meet Friday morning, and according to its preliminary findings, “there is still an issue with legislators’ salaries and per diem but there is not enough time before session starts to fully address the issues and determine an appropriate recommendation.”

“We have decided to put it off,” said Mike Miller, a former state legislator from North Pole who sits on the five-member State Officers Compensation Commission.

The commission’s tentative plan is to hold work sessions and public hearings to determine “the appropriate pay and per diem” for legislators, then act next year.

Legislators’ pay — and that of the governor, lieutenant governor and commissioners — is controlled by the commission, which includes members appointed by the governor and Legislature. The commission’s recommendations automatically become effective unless explicitly rejected by the Legislature.

Alaska lawmakers receive a salary of $50,400 per year and are eligible for tax-free expense payments every day the Legislature is in session. Those payments are intended to pay for housing, food and clothing during the session, but in extended sessions, they can amount to as much as a lawmaker’s pre-tax salary.

This year, for example, Rep. Neal Foster, D-Nome, claimed $51,642, the most of any lawmaker. Foster did not answer a call seeking comment Thursday.

In total, lawmakers applied for $2.4 million in per diem this year, according to a September figure. A final tally will be reported at the end of January.

Members of the public have repeatedly questioned the size of that expense, particularly as the state has cut the budget significantly elsewhere. Lawmakers receive per diem on the federal scale, which in Juneau, amounts to $287 per day from Jan. 1 through April 15, then up to $307 per day until Sept. 15.

The scale used by most state employees would result in payments of $78 per day.

In fall 2017, the compensation commission proposed putting legislators on the state-employee per diem schedule. It also proposed cutting legislators’ salaries by 10%, with members saying that legislators should also participate in budget cuts.

Those proposals failed 2-2, with Miller absent.

The commission’s makeup has changed slightly since then, but Miller said there are still members who would like to see the per diem amount drop all the way to zero.

Miller and former state Sen. Johnny Ellis — also a member of the commission — said they agree the per diem system needs to change, but eliminating it without a replacement would mean “the average person” couldn’t afford to serve in office because they would have to pay for two homes: one in their district, and one in Juneau.

Ellis said that in his vision, the state would phase out per diem while phasing in a salary increase.

“I just feel we need to stretch the net a little bit so we’re not only getting retired people,” Miller said. “Whether we like it or not, to get the qualified people we need, we’re going to have to pay them.”