JUNEAU — In a 3-1 decision on Tuesday, the board that sets the salaries of Alaska’s state legislators voted to cut lawmakers’ daily expense payments by almost two-thirds.
The proposal, which will be finalized in a Jan. 18 commission meeting, automatically comes into effect in 2023 unless lawmakers specifically vote it down.
“This is the way we’re going to move forward,” said former Democratic state Sen. Johnny Ellis, who chairs the commission.
Tuesday’s decision is the culmination of a yearslong effort intended to address public concerns about the cost of lawmakers’ expense payments, known as per diem.
Lawmakers receive $50,400 in base salary but also may collect $293 per day for living expenses. Over the past six years, Alaska lawmakers have been called into 15 special sessions, each lasting as long as 30 days, in addition to their 121-day regular sessions. From 2015 through 2021, because of the special sessions, legislators have collected an average of $35,000 per year in per diem.
That cost caused public speculation that lawmakers might be financially benefiting from legislative gridlock.
The proposal approved Tuesday is a compromise between different ideas on the commission. Daily payments will be capped at $100 per person, and legislators will be required to submit receipts in order to collect that amount. Those receipts will be public documents available for inspection, commissioners intend.
The per diem amount is now less than that paid to state employees, who receive $60 per day, plus the cost of their accommodations.
To partially compensate for the cut, lawmakers’ base salaries will rise to $64,000 per year. In a 121-day legislative session, a legislator’s gross pay will fall from $85,853 to $76,100, assuming expense payments for every day. Because salaries are taxable and expense payments are not, the net pay cut is larger.
Salary commissioners are also proposing to increase the salaries of the lieutenant governor and the heads of state agencies. Gov. Mike Dunleavy submitted a letter opposing a pay increase for whoever serves as governor.
Alaska’s governor is paid $145,000 per year. Under the new pay plan, the lieutenant governor will be paid slightly less than the governor, while state commissioners will be paid more, said Kate Sheehan, director of the state division of personnel and labor relations.
Those increases did not receive much attention from commissioners, who argued for about three hours about the proper compensation for the state’s 60 legislators.
Ellis had previously proposed paying lawmakers a salary of $74,500, plus $5,000 maximum per diem per year. Commissioner Lee Cruise, a member of the public appointed by Dunleavy, had proposed keeping salaries at $50,400 with a per diem cap of $12,000 per year.
“I want this to be a financial punishment if they don’t get things done in 120 days,” Cruise said.
The commission received little public testimony, and almost all of what it did receive came from current and former state legislators who said the proposals would make it difficult for low-income and middle-income Alaskans to serve in the Legislature.
That’s because the time needed to serve in the Legislature precludes meaningful employment, and lawmakers must maintain two households, one in their home district and the other in Juneau.
Republicans and Democrats alike urged commissioners to rethink the idea of capping per diem. Members of the House’s minority Republican caucus signed a joint letter on the topic, and some individual legislators submitted comments.
Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, said that if salaries and per diem are too low, it will discourage professionals from running for the Legislature. Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, referenced former state Rep. Sam Kito III’s decision to quit the Legislature after a prior commission eliminated per diem for lawmakers who live near the Capitol.
Former Democratic state Rep. Ray Metcalfe said reducing compensation will preclude anyone from serving unless they are independently wealthy or have another source of income.
“If you don’t have a sugar daddy, you can’t survive in today’s legislature,” he said.
Commissioners Kurt Olson, a former Republican state House lawmaker, and Carrigan Grigsby, a member of the public appointed by Dunleavy, favored an approach between the ideas from Ellis and Cruise.
Grigsby’s approach, which Ellis said he reluctantly supported, was the one ultimately adopted by the commission. Cruise cast the lone “no” vote. The commission’s fifth member didn’t participate in the meeting.
In an interview after the meeting, Cruise said he voted against the proposal because he doesn’t feel it accurately represents public sentiment. He intends to draft a dissenting opinion, which will be included in the commission’s final report.