JUNEAU — The Alaska Senate unanimously on Monday rejected a pay raise that had been recommended for the governor, lieutenant governor and the heads of state agencies, with the future of the independent commission that makes those salary recommendations itself being called into question.
Senate President Gary Stevens, a Kodiak Republican, said the State Officers Compensation Commission — made up of five members appointed by the governor — has failed in its duty to meaningfully debate pay for legislators.
“I think we just need to give up on that commission,” Stevens said. “They have never done their job or looked at things seriously.”
Under state law, the commission’s recommendations become effective 60 days after they are introduced, unless lawmakers pass a bill to reject them. The deadline for the House to block the proposed pay raises is March 25.
House Speaker Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, said the House has been focused on other issues, like finishing the subcommittee review process of the budget. But she said it was her understanding that the House would also want to reject the commission’s recommendations.
Legislators have lingering frustration with the commission from last year. After heated debate, commissioners recommended that legislators’ daily expense payments, commonly called per diem, be slashed from $307 per day to $100 per day and that their salaries be raised from $50,400 to $64,000 per year to partially compensate.
The result would have been a gross cut of about $11,000 for a legislator who requests expense payments for every day of a 121-day regular session, from $87,547 to $76,100. Lawmakers needed only three days to unanimously pass a bill last year rejecting the cut.
“I think we need to be fairly compensated,” Stevens said, noting that it can be particularly financially difficult for lawmakers with young families to serve in Juneau and maintain another home in their districts. Legislators’ compensation packages haven’t been adjusted since 2010.
Recent commission meetings have been “contentious” and “unproductive,” said Larry Persily, who is a member of the commission and the owner of The Wrangell Sentinel.
The commission agreed in November to an inflation adjustment for the governor, lieutenant governor and commissioners’ salaries, and a 2%-per-year pay rise since their last pay bumps. But there was no “meaningful” discussions about legislators’ compensation packages, Persily said.
“There was nothing anywhere close to an agreement, much less an indication of an agreement on the horizon for legislators’ pay,” Persily said.
The commission was established to make decisions about pay for legislators through a 2008 bill. That role was partly established so lawmakers wouldn’t need to vote to increase their own salaries.
The commission recommended in November that the governor’s salary should be increased from $145,000 per year to $176,000 per year. The lieutenant governor’s salary would rise to approximately $140,000 per year and commissioners’ salaries would increase to $168,000.
Sitka Republican Sen. Bert Stedman said on the Senate floor that the recommendations were rejected because they did not include a “comprehensive plan” to motivate the “brightest Alaskans to public service.” After the 19-0 vote rejecting the recommendations, Stedman said the salary commission is “rotten with politics.”
Dunleavy appointee Kurt Olson, a former Republican state legislator who chairs the commission, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Lee Cruise, another Dunleavy appointee who has been the most vocally opposed to salary increases for legislators, did not immediately respond, either.
Stevens said he had heard concerns from Gov. Mike Dunleavy about the competitiveness of current salaries for commissioners. Stevens said lawmakers could debate legislation to increase their own salaries and those of commissioners, instead of through the independent salary commission.