Alaska House Speaker Cathy Tilton on Tuesday called for the Legislature to reject the state salary commission’s recommendations that would grant lawmakers 67% raises and roughly 20% raises to the governor and his cabinet.
The request came after the independent commission responsible for recommending salary changes for legislators and state executives last week abruptly amended its original recommendations to include a steep $34,000 pay raise for lawmakers. The amended recommendations were adopted in a 15-minute meeting after all five members of the commission were appointed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, days after the previous commissioners either resigned or were removed by Dunleavy, drawing concern that the commission’s public process had been circumvented.
“I wouldn’t say good public process or bad public process. I would say it was definitely an unusual public process,” said Tilton, a Wasilla Republican. “Right now, there are many big issues that should take precedence over the Legislature having pay raises and those issues are before us right now.”
Dunleavy’s unusual step in replacing the entire salary commission came after lawmakers had voted unanimously to reject recommendations by the previous commissioners that included roughly 20% pay raises for the governor, lieutenant governor and department heads without offering legislators any pay increases.
[Earlier coverage: New Alaska salary commission unanimously recommends 67% pay raise for lawmakers]
Dunleavy vetoed the bill rejecting the commission’s recommendations on Monday, under the understanding that lawmakers would be supportive of the commission’s plan after it had been amended to include generous salary boosts for lawmakers.
But Tilton said she wanted the House and Senate to meet on Wednesday to take a vote on whether to override the governor’s veto, which would be the first step by the Legislature to reject the commission’s amended recommendations.
Two-thirds of the Legislature must vote to override within five days of the governor’s veto in order for the vote to pass. Leaders of the House and Senate said Tuesday that they didn’t know if enough of their members supported rejecting the recommendations in order to reach that threshold.
Under state law, the commission’s recommendations become law after 60 days unless the Legislature votes to reject them. Legal advisers to the Legislature have interpreted that law to mean that the House and Senate would have to pass a new bill rejecting the commission’s amended recommendations, in addition to overriding the governor’s veto, in order to do away with the new salary guidelines.
“This is a first step. There are some other things that may need to happen and we’re definitely looking at, in the future, putting forward a bill that would help with transparency of the compensation commission as we’re moving forward,” Tilton said.
Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, who supports the salary recommendations, said Tuesday that his caucus has not yet decided whether to accept the request for a joint session to vote on overriding the governor’s veto.
“I can’t exactly tell you what track we’re going to be taking,” Stevens said Tuesday afternoon.
Members of the Senate majority caucus voiced support for the salary boosts, despite the rushed process by which they were recommended.
“It may have been clumsy, but it’s a very delicate question,” said Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel.
“We all realize it could have been done a little smoother,” said Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, adding that without a salary increase, newer and younger members of the Legislature “are not going to be able to afford to stay here and do the job very long.”
‘The public process’
Stevens said that after lawmakers rejected the commission’s previous recommendations, he had discussions with members of the Dunleavy administration about increasing lawmakers’ salaries. At that point, members of the Senate majority had drafted a bill that would have pegged legislator salaries at 50% of department commissioner compensation — or the $84,000 that was ultimately recommended by the commission. When the commission adopted that recommendation, the Senate backed away from introducing their bill.
Addressing reporters on Tuesday, Dunleavy defended his actions in appointing an all-new commission after previous commissioners’ recommendations were rejected.
“I had a discussion with legislative leadership. They gave me some ideas. One of the ideas is the one that the commission actually adopted, the new commission that we appointed, and they got that recommendation and they voted on the recommendation,” said Dunleavy, referring to the 15-minute meeting in which the five new commissioners voted on adopting the salary guidelines.
“This is just the beginning of that public process,” Dunleavy said, despite the fact that there was no advance public notice on the legislator compensation recommendation before it was adopted by the commission, and the five commissioners voted to waive a rule that requires the commission to notice meetings at least 20 days in advance — in effect denying the public the chance to weigh in on the recommendation as they would under normal proceedings.
State statute also requires the commission “give reasonable public notice of its preliminary findings and recommendations, solicit public comments, and give due regard to the public comments,” before submitting their final report.
Dunleavy insisted that state requirements for a public process were followed, even though the recommendation was adopted before commissioners received any public testimony on the specific proposal they were considering.
Dunleavy called the legislative votes — including the one the Legislature might take to override his veto — “the major part of the public process.” But state statutes dictate the commission’s recommendations go into effect automatically unless the Legislature passes a bill to reject them, meaning that the public will have no opportunity to comment on recommendations unless the House or Senate advance a bill to reject the commission’s amended recommendations.
“The public process is unfolding the way it should. It’s happening right now,” said Dunleavy.
‘A livable wage’
Whether or not the Legislature successfully votes to override the governor’s veto, lawmakers have until May 15 to pass a separate bill rejecting the commission’s new recommendations.
Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, said the Legislature’s legal advisers weren’t certain if overriding the governor’s veto would apply to the legislators’ salaries.
“There’s a real question of if you override, what exactly are you overriding?” Wielechowski said, adding that they advised the Legislature should pass a separate bill to disapprove of the new recommendations.
But Senate members signaled on Tuesday that such a bill would face an unlikely path in the chamber, where several members agree that despite a flawed public process, the outcome of larger legislator salaries is overdue.
“I think the governor has stepped forward and worked hard to try to solve an issue that has been facing us for the past 10 years. I believe an increase in salary is justified,” said Stevens, calling the commission’s actions “admirable.”
“As I’m ending my career in a few years, it’s not going to affect me very much. It is affecting I think the younger folks that are entering the Legislature. You deserve to have a livable wage coming to Juneau,” Stevens added.
Both Tilton and Stevens said they were not involved in the process of amending the commission’s recommendations.
“At the time when I was asked to put some names forward — no, I did not know that the entire makeup of the commission would be changed,” said Tilton.
The commission’s compensation recommendations have tied lawmakers’ pay to that of the governor’s cabinet. Under the commission’s plan, department executives’ pay would go from $140,000 to $168,000 — an increase Dunleavy said Tuesday was needed because those positions are “tough to fill.” Dunleavy too would get a pay increase from $145,000 per year to $176,000.
“I know that some want to believe that there was some nefarious or dark reason why the members of the commission were removed, but as I explained earlier, all statutes, constitution, regs, you name it, were followed, have been followed, will be followed,” said Dunleavy.