The Alaska House and Senate are divided on whether lawmakers should receive a 67% pay raise, alongside a roughly 20% raise for the governor and his cabinet.
Several lawmakers introduced or signaled their support on Wednesday for bills that would reject the pay increases proposed by an independent compensation commission whose process some lawmakers called “flawed” and “clumsy,” even as Senate majority members continued to defend the commission’s recommendations.
Members of the House minority, the House majority and the Senate minority all said they would introduce legislation to nullify the salary recommendation, which would raise lawmaker salaries from $50,400 to $84,000 while also raising department commissioner salaries from $140,000 to $168,000 and the governor’s pay from $145,000 to $176,000.
Some lawmakers called for the salary increases to be rejected after the independent commission responsible for recommending salary changes for legislators and state executives last week abruptly amended its original recommendations to include the steep 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.
Dunleavy appointed an all-new commission after lawmakers had voted unanimously earlier this month to reject recommendations by the previous commissioners that included pay raises for the governor and his cabinet, but not for legislators.
The commission last week amended those recommendations to raise legislator salaries without first notifying the public that they planned to do so or accepting public testimony on the plan as required under state statute. Dunleavy then vetoed the bill rejecting the commission’s recommendations on Monday.
But even lawmakers who in principle agree with the need to increase their own pay said that the truncated public process, combined with new revenue projections released Tuesday that indicated the state would have hundreds of millions of dollars less than previously predicted, pushed many House members and two Senate members to call for the commission’s recommendations to again be rejected.
A request by House Speaker Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, to call a joint session to override the governor’s veto of the disapproval bill was declined by Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, who later said he thinks the salary increase is “a good thing to do.”
“Some people may not, and they can find ways to not accept it if they choose not to. But for most of us, I think it’s quite expensive to be here and $50,000 a year was sort of unfair to me,” said Stevens.
An effort to force a joint session failed in the Senate on a 16-2 vote, with only Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Wasilla, and Sen. Robb Myers, R-North Pole — two of the three Senate members who are not part of the 17-member bipartisan majority — voting in favor of the joint session. An effort in the House to force a joint session also failed.
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 can reject the amended recommendations by passing a new bill.
‘The most pressing issue’
House minority members said Wednesday they are drafting a bill that would do just that, in addition to directing the Department of Administration to expedite studies into the salaries and benefits of other state employees, in response to the state’s reported challenges in recruiting and retaining workers.
Rep. Donna Mears, D-Anchorage, who is co-sponsoring the legislation, said that instead of considering the pay for legislators and high-level executives, the focus should be on teachers, policy and other state workers.
“The most pressing issue facing our state is not increasing legislative pay,” said Rep. Maxine Dibert, D-Fairbanks, another sponsor of the legislation.
Tilton said the majority would have its own legislation to reject the commission’s recommendations.
Even if the House is able to pass legislation to reject the salary recommendations, Senate leaders have indicated that they support the pay increases and are unlikely to pass a measure disapproving of them.
Hughes and Myers — the two minority senators — introduced legislation to reject the recommendations nonetheless. Their bill would also make it possible for lawmakers to receive their entire annual salary during the first five months of the year, in an effort to accommodate lawmakers who lose their regular income during the months when the Legislature is in session, beginning in January and stretching through spring.
“Not only is the compensation commission process flawed and fraught with conflict-of-interest issues due to legislators having the power to give themselves a raise by passively accepting the report, but such a large raise when we have a tremendous shortfall is unwarranted in this fiscal climate,” Hughes said in a prepared statement.
Myers works as a truck driver when the Legislature is not in session and has advocated for lawmaker compensation to be made available to legislators in a bulk sum while the Legislature is in session, to make up for lost pay during those months.
Their bill was referred to the Senate Finance Committee, where it could get a hearing but was unlikely to have a favorable response by committee chairs who have already signaled their support for the commission’s recommendations.
‘With a hacksaw’
After the Senate rejected the call for a vote to override the governor’s veto, House leaders proposed a nonbinding resolution, called a “sense of the House,” to symbolically signal the chamber’s disapproval of the salaries.
“The House finds that the process undertaken by the state officers’ compensation commission was flawed in adopting an amendment to their original report and with the spring revenue forecast predicting a deficit of over $900 million for this and the next fiscal year, pay raises are not justified or warranted,” the sense of the House read.
But then Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, proposed an amendment to the measure that would have deleted most of its language, including the line stating that “pay raises are not justified or warranted.” That amendment was ultimately adopted in a 25-14 vote. All 14 lawmakers who opposed it were Republicans.
“Obviously, what’s taken place over the last week has been a somewhat clumsy process and there’s concerns at the very least with it,” said Minority Leader Rep. Calvin Schrage, I-Anchorage, defending the amendment. Without the amendment, Schrage said, the measure would have done “what should be done with a scalpel — with a hacksaw.”
“I know that personally, there are parts of the compensation commission report which I agree with,” said Schrage, referring specifically to the need for higher salaries for department executives to attract qualified candidates.
“What we’re really united in disagreeing with is the process by which the compensation report was amended and brought to this body,” said Schrage.
But the House never got to vote on the measure. House Rules Chair Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, withdrew it before a final vote, saying later that it was “gutted” by Ortiz’s amendment.
Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage, called the back-and-forth between the House and Senate on the potential joint session “political theater.”
“It would have just led to this contentious process that ultimately would have changed nothing,” said Fields.
Fields, who is one of a handful of lawmakers with young children, said that ultimately, higher salaries for legislators are needed to attract working-class people to the Legislature.
“I think there are four of us with young kids in the House, and every single one of us is at the upper end of income distribution. We are not representative of Alaskans, and that’s because a working-class person can’t support their family doing this job and that’s not fair to Alaskans,” said Fields. “On the substance, I support the recommendations. The process was a disaster.”
Iris Samuels reported from Anchorage and Sean Maguire reported from Juneau.