JUNEAU — Citing public concern over the cost of Alaska legislators’ daily expense payments, the five-member Alaska State Officers Compensation Commission is planning to strictly limit those payments and boost lawmakers’ base salary to compensate.
“This really is a magic moment for people who want to do something,” said commission chairman and former Democratic state Sen. Johnny Ellis during a meeting discussing the proposal.
As of Friday, commission staff had yet to provide a written version of a proposal discussed informally by commissioners during a Nov. 29 meeting, and commissioners also said they didn’t have written copies.
The commission is scheduled to meet Dec. 16 to finalize the exact amount and has not yet taken public testimony, required by state law.
Legislators are currently paid $50,400 per year and can claim $293 in per diem for each day the Legislature is in session. (Travel, relocation and office expenses are also paid by the state.)
From 2015 through 2021, lawmakers additionally collected an average of $35,000 per year in tax-free per diem.
Final figures for 2021 are not yet available, but in the comparably long 2017 legislative session, legislators averaged $41,800 in per diem, plus their salary.
With the Legislature repeatedly called into special session, the amount of per diem has risen, drawing public ire.
Ellis and other commissioners said on Nov. 29 that by reducing per diem and increasing base salary, they hope to eliminate any financial incentive that could encourage lawmakers to extend their work.
“I do think, and I think the public thinks that they inadvertently benefit from going beyond their 121-day sessions,” said commissioner Lee Cruise in an interview.
Reducing per diem “may encourage legislators to come together and get things done sooner,” he said.
But not all special sessions are called by the Legislature itself, and those held in Juneau require legislators to maintain two households — one at home, and one in Juneau.
By increasing base salaries to compensate for the loss of per diem, commissioners said they hope to avoid a situation where only wealthy Alaskans can afford to serve in the Legislature.
“We were getting to be a Legislature of people who were just retirees or people who had good oil company jobs or labor industry jobs,” Ellis said during the meeting.
Members of the commission also will propose pay increases for the governor, lieutenant governor and the heads of state departments. Their pay hasn’t changed since 2011, and commissioners would increase it by 1% for each year since then, a figure that commissioners concluded was roughly half of inflation during the period. The governor’s salary, for example, would rise from $145,000 per year to about $163,000.
“The idea is not to go in and give raises. The idea is to be cognizant of the fact that we are going through an inflationary time,” said commissioner Carrigan Grigsby in an interview.
Grigsby and Cruise each said that the wages paid to top state officials haven’t kept up with their private-sector equivalents.
“Yeah, it’s public service, but at the end of the day, it shouldn’t be prohibitive for people who don’t have a retirement fund or somebody who’s a little more well-off,” Grigsby said.
Commissioner Kurt Olson, a former Republican legislator from Soldotna, pointed out that there are hundreds of state employees who earned more than the governor in 2020.
Under state law, the compensation commission’s recommendations are adopted automatically unless rejected by the Legislature and governor. According to the schedule in state law, the change for the governor, lieutenant governor and commissioners would take effect July 1, and the change in legislative pay would begin in January 2023.
Under state law, the commission is supposed to provide recommendations on top officials’ pay at least once every two years. According to legislative clerks, it hasn’t done so since January 2018. At that time, the commission eliminated per diem for lawmakers if they live within 50 miles of the Legislature’s location.
In late 2019, commissioners informally recommended no changes to legislators’ pay but said they were likely to address per diem in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic precluded that from happening, former commission member Mike Miller said at the time.