JUNEAU — The Alaska Legislature has been gridlocked for years on some of the state’s basic issues, but on the issue of their pay, lawmakers are moving quickly and with consensus.
In a 20-0 vote Wednesday, the Alaska Senate unanimously rejected a plan to cut legislative pay by reducing the amount that legislators can collect in daily expense payments. The plan, proposed by an independent commission, will be automatically enacted unless the Legislature passes — and the governor signs — a bill opposing it.
That bill must be enacted within 60 days, which contributed to extraordinarily rapid movement in the Senate. The disapproval bill was proposed Tuesday and passed less than 24 hours later.
The bill now goes to the Alaska House of Representatives, which could vote as early as Thursday morning.
Alaska lawmakers currently receive $50,400 per year in salary and may collect an additional $307 per day for living expenses during the legislative session. From 2015 through 2021, the average legislator earned $85,400 per year in salary and expenses, and those years featured a lower daily reimbursement rate.
Citing public concerns that expense payments gave legislators a financial incentive to work longer than needed, the Alaska State Officers Compensation Commission voted 3-1 this month to cut lawmakers’ compensation to $100 per day.
To partially compensate for the reduction, the commission agreed to raise legislators’ base salaries, but the change still results in a pay cut.
In a 121-day legislative session, a legislator’s gross pay would fall from $85,853 to $76,100, assuming expense payments are collected every day. Salaries are taxable and expense payments are not, so take-home pay drops even more.
In speeches before the vote and interviews afterward, senators said the pay plan was unrealistic and failed to account for the cost of maintaining a household in Juneau and one in a legislator’s home district.
Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, said the pay plan was “punitive” rather than a real attempt to address the issues surrounding expense payments.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, offered similar comments, saying the pay proposal appeared to be the result of one salary commission’s unhappiness with the Legislature. If that member was serious, he’d run for office himself, Begich said.
“I’m tired of people who want to serve the public being demonized by people who don’t give a crap, and that maybe is what it comes down to,” he said.
Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, suggested that the pay cut could be an incentive for corruption, with poorer legislators more vulnerable to bribes, while Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, said the new compensation system would create an imbalance of power between the governor’s office and legislators if the governor calls multiple special sessions that force lawmakers to work in Juneau.
Micciche said he wants a pay system that would allow a 27-year-old with three children to serve in the Legislature. Right now, he said, things may be tilted toward the independently wealthy.
“That’s a gap we’re not discussing,” he said.