The Alaska Legislature’s first two special sessions of 2021 cost $896,795, according to figures released Friday by the Legislature’s nonpartisan administrative agency. The cost of a 30-day special session was up slightly from 2019, even as spending on legislative travel and per diem marginally declined.
State legislators needed 36 extra days in May and June to finish work on the state budget three days before a government shutdown.
The state constitution limits special sessions to 30 days; the work earlier this year included a 30-day session and a six-day session. A third special session began Monday.
Included in this year’s costs to date are $253,738 in personal expense payments to legislators. Another $84,073 was billed for travel, the records indicate.
Alaska’s state legislators are paid $50,400 per year but are also allowed to claim $293 per day for housing, food and other essentials needed to operate a second household in Juneau while the Legislature is in session.
The three legislators who live in Juneau are not permitted to claim these payments, and lawmakers traditionally request reimbursement only for the days they are in Juneau.
The top recipient in the state House was Rep. Ron Gillham, R-Kenai, who accepted $10,548. The top recipient in the state Senate was Sen. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage, who accepted $9,376.
Expense payments are a frequent target of public ire, with critics claiming that the daily payments are too expensive, encourage drawn-out debates and discourage decisive action.
Special session expense payments are particularly fraught. In 2018, the Legislature prohibited special session per diem if the state budget had not been approved.
The sponsor of that legislation, former Rep. Jason Grenn, said the intent was to disallow the payments if the budget didn’t pass on time, but legislators have subsequently interpreted the law to allow retroactive payments. A House-Senate panel voted in 2019 to approve those payments and did so again this year.
Mike Miller, a former legislator and member of the board that sets legislative salaries, said there may be a discussion about per diem and compensation when the board meets later this year.
In 2019, the board considered whether to eliminate per diem while raising legislative salaries, an act that would cut overall costs. The board ultimately declined to change the rules. The board hasn’t met since then, partially because of COVID-19, Miller said.
He said there’s a balancing act at play. There’s a constant desire to cut spending, but if compensation is cut too much, only wealthy Alaskans can afford to serve in the Legislature, he said.
“There are some folks, who no matter what we pay legislators, will say it’s too much,” he said.