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Alaska Legislature

Legislative daily allowances continued to be paid after Alaska lawmakers recessed over coronavirus concerns

Members of the Alaska Legislature gather in a Juneau gymnasium Wednesday, March 4, 2020 to hear a coronavirus briefing from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. (James Brooks / ADN)

JUNEAU — The Alaska Legislature suspended its session in late March over coronavirus concerns, but records show one-third of lawmakers accepted a nearly $300 daily payment for three weeks beyond that — until what would have been the end of the 90-day session.

Records provided by the Legislative Affairs Agency showed others accepted the allowance intended for lodging and meal expenses for at least several days after the Legislature recessed on March 29.

Five stopped taking the allowance on March 30. The records showed two others, Sen. Lora Reinbold and Rep. Kelly Merrick, who had missed time in the immediate lead-up to the recess, stopped earlier.

All but three of the Legislature's 60 members are eligible for the allowance. The three Juneau lawmakers are ineligible. The maximum a legislator could receive over the 90-day span was $25,830.

The allowance was paid automatically through April 19 — the end of the scheduled 90-day session — and legislators had to contact the agency's accounting office to reject or change the amount received, said Daniel McDonald, the Senate majority communications director.

Agency finance manager Mindy Kissner said lawmakers can return any portion at any time. On Thursday, she said there had been change requests. She said updated records would be available next week.

Records provided to The Associated Press last week showed Republican Sen. Click Bishop of Fairbanks was among 21 lawmakers who received the $287-per-day allowance through April 19. He told the AP he believed it was an overpayment and would have his staff look into it.

Aide Darwin Peterson said Bishop didn't intend to take the money after leaving Juneau March 29 and reimbursed $6,027.

Seven of the 21 legislators responded to emailed requests for comment, including Bishop, House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, Rep. Louise Stutes and Sen. David Wilson.

Legislative salaries equate to $4,200 a month or $50,400 a year. The speaker and Senate president are entitled to another $500 a year, according to the agency.

The additional allowance is intended to help with costs related to living part of the year in Juneau.

Stutes, a Kodiak Republican, said lawmakers still have to pay expenses back home and aren’t making “big-time money” on the payments. Stutes said she stayed in Juneau for a period after the recess began and left behind a vehicle and belongings in storage to save on shipping costs, not knowing when she might be called back.

Edgmon said legislators may soon return after a lawsuit challenging plans for federal coronavirus relief aid was filed. He said in a statement said the pandemic forced some members to remain in Juneau and others to return home.

"But every legislator was engaged and working, with many continuing to pay bills in two locations," he said.

Edgmon, an independent, stayed in Juneau given the potential for lawmakers to reconvene and limited air service from his home community of Dillingham, said House majority press secretary Joe Plesha. Edgmon also didn't want to risk bringing the virus home, Plesha said by email.

Wilson, a Wasilla Republican, said he donated portions of his allowance in excess of costs such as rent and moving.

Republican Rep. Sara Rasmussen of Anchorage said she had a lease through 90 days last year but had to find alternate accommodations when the session ran longer. Trying to avoid that hassle this year, she said she got a lease through mid-May.

"I just took what we needed to meet our contractual obligations as part of moving to Juneau," said Rasmussen, who records show received payments through April 14. She said she couldn't get out of her lease and had a day-care contract.

Rasmussen was in quarantine in Anchorage for the final stretch of session after traveling to Utah in mid-March for her great-grandfather's 100th birthday. Legislative guidelines for travel, aimed at reducing the risk of coronavirus overlapped with her trip. She said she called in to committees, worked on amendments and watched floor sessions while not in Juneau.

Rep. Mike Prax, a North Pole Republican who took office in late February, stopped taking an allowance March 30, records show. Prax said he traveled light and stayed at a hotel near the Capitol.

After the session was halted, “I cleaned everything up and went home,” he said.

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