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Daily bill for Alaska Legislature's overtime session: $12,500

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published April 22, 2016

Each extra day of the Alaska Legislature's overtime session is costing the state $12,500 in payments to lawmakers for their housing and other expenses, regardless of how much work they're doing.

The per diem payments, $213 a day, are made automatically, without lawmakers having to claim them, even as the Legislature has kept a light schedule since its regular session was supposed to end Sunday.

The Senate has held just three hearings this week, along with three quick floor sessions that consumed less than an hour in total.

Senate leaders say they're waiting in Juneau for the House Republican-led majority and Democratic minority to reach compromises on the state budget and on changes to the state's oil tax regime.

"We're not in full-blown mode, but we still have to be here, ready," said Senate Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, who's been pushing his criminal justice reform legislation in House Finance Committee meetings this week.

Coghill said in a phone interview Friday it was a "reasonable discussion" to question the per diem payments during the overtime session. But he pointed out lawmakers still have to pay for their housing and rental cars if they're staying in Juneau.

A legislative committee in 2010 approved the current per diem system, which pays lawmakers for each day of the regular session, and for extra time, based on a federal rate for short-term travel. The payments generate about $20,000 in extra income for legislators, in addition to their $50,000 salary, over the three-month regular session.

That session was supposed to end Sunday, based on a 90-day limit set by a 2006 voter initiative. But the state Constitution allows lawmakers to disregard the deadline and continue for up to another full month, and Friday was their fifth extra day.

Lawmakers worked for 53 extra days last year, between an extended regular session and two special sessions, before reaching a budget deal. Democratic minority legislators this year introduced bills in the House and Senate to bar per diem payments and suspend lawmakers' own salaries after the 90th day of session if a fully funded state operating budget hasn't passed.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, who sponsored the legislation in the Senate, said the measure would "put pressure on the Legislature to get done within 90 days."

"The voters voted on a 90-day session," he said in a phone interview Friday.

Wielechowski's Senate Bill 143, however, never received a hearing in Republican Sen. Bill Stoltze's State Affairs Committee. And now, as a small group of Republican and Democratic House members privately tries to negotiate a compromise on oil taxes, lawmakers are still being paid even though little work has been done in public.

In the 40-member House, only the 11-member finance committee has been meeting this week.

The Senate, meanwhile, held one meeting of its finance committee this week. Two joint House-Senate conference committee have also held brief hearings, including one Friday to approve four labor contracts with state employees.

Wielechowski was in Anchorage on Friday. He wouldn't say whether he would turn down per diem while he was home, but pointed out he was still holding constituent meetings and had expenses in the capital city.

"I'm still paying rent on a place in Juneau," Wielechowski said. He added: "It's got to be all of us -- everyone has to face the same consequences or there won't be pressure."

He followed up with a text message: "If we pass my bill, I will gladly write a check to the state or charity for the salary and per diem I have gotten after day 90."

Asked if any members of his Republican-led majority caucus have considered turning down the per diem payments for the extended session, Coghill responded that a few senators said they would do so if they went home for the weekend.

Members have also agreed that Anchorage legislators shouldn't take per diem payments if a special session convenes there, Coghill said.

Last year, some lawmakers took thousands of dollars in per diem for an Anchorage special session even though they live within driving distance.

The per diem rate for Anchorage is currently $213, but on May 16 it will spike to $453, based on summer hotel prices. For Fairbanks — another potential special session site — the per diem rate is $153, rising to $232 on May 15.

Juneau's per diem rate rises to $247 on May 1. Legislative support staff emailed lawmakers Friday to say they've secured discounted hotel rooms for the extended session for as little as $57.50 a night.