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Alaska lawmakers eye their own budget for reductions

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published February 12, 2017

JUNEAU — Alaska lawmakers are taking a closer look at their own spending this year as they eye deeper cuts to state agencies and appear likely to ask residents to give up part of their Permanent Fund dividends.

The House has already slashed its spending on employee salaries during the annual legislative session, while leaders from that chamber and the Senate broke with tradition Thursday by holding the Legislature's budget in its first committee for more than a single, perfunctory hearing.

The moves come as lawmakers have faced persistent questions about their own spending on travel and salaries, even as some legislators have called for steeper reductions to Gov. Bill Walker's executive branch agencies amid the state's budget crisis.

Some of the state's union workers don't feel that lawmakers have taken the same deficit-reduction for the legislative branch that they've asked of other employees, said Jim Duncan, the executive director of the Alaska State Employees Association, the state's largest public-sector union.

"At least, that message hasn't been communicated well by the Legislature, if they have," Duncan said in a phone interview. "The line workers in state government are being asked to take the brunt of the reductions."

When it took control from the outgoing Republican-led majority in January, the new House majority coalition, made up of Democrats and a few Republicans and independents, instituted a salary cap and reduced each legislator's staffing budget.

The measures are projected to save more than $250,000, slicing about 13 percent from spending on House members' partisan staff for the 90-day session.

The salary cap changed the "step and range" system of experience and longevity under which aides are paid, and it had the effect of cutting from 16 to three the number of aides earning yearly salaries of $100,000 or more.

The cap was waived for four experienced aides who work for the House leadership. Two of those four are among the aides making more than $100,000, while the third in that high-income group is a long-term Republican leadership aide now in the House minority.

The personnel reductions come on top of other symbolic austerity measures instituted by Anchorage Republican Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, who as chair of the House Rules Committee wields near-unilateral power over an array of legislative business.

"Obviously, we're not going to solve the budget crisis with $270,000. But if everybody started looking at little things, then pretty soon it starts adding up to a decent chunk of change," LeDoux said. "Let's look at ourselves first."

LeDoux has instituted price hikes at the legislative cafeteria and is touting cutbacks to subscriptions and reference books. One example: She ordered four sets of Alaska's oil and gas laws this year at $56 apiece, down from the 13 approved for the House in 2016.

In cleaning out her new office, LeDoux said, she kept finding copies of books still wrapped in cellophane.

In her previous office one floor down, the books would be delivered and end up sitting unused on a shelf, LeDoux said.

"I realized, when I got this job, somebody's signing off. These things didn't just come from the sky," she said. "It saved relatively little money. But once people start saving pennies, the pennies start turning into nickels and dimes and dollars."

LeDoux acknowledged that the House's salary reductions weren't as painful for aides in her caucus, since many of them still received raises when their bosses switched from the minority to the majority. But LeDoux noted that one of her own staffers, Lisa Vaught, took a pay cut under the new rules, losing about $6,000 from her $87,000 salary last year.

[See who's on your legislator's payroll: House — Senate]

The Senate's holdover Republican-led majority, meanwhile, has so far insulated its in-session staff from the same types of reductions.

The number of Senate aides earning in-session salaries that would amount, on an annual basis, to $100,000 or more went up to 13 this year from 10 last year, in part because Republican members hired three experienced aides whose bosses in the House retired.

The 20-member Senate is also projected to pay about the same overall for its partisan staffers as it did last year. And while the 40-member House last year reduced members' office expense accounts by a fourth, to $12,000 from $16,000, the Senate has left its own accounts intact at $20,000.

The Senate president, Fairbanks Republican Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, refused to be interviewed about legislative spending, saying he wasn't ready to discuss his chamber's ideas about potential reductions.

"I'll give you a really good story when we have a complete package," he said.

A Senate majority spokesman, Daniel McDonald, pointed to cuts made by the chamber outside of the session, in which spending on partisan staffers has dropped by some 17 percent over the past two years — or about twice the level of the House's reductions.

McDonald also cited sharp Senate cuts to travel spending, which, for the full Legislature, has fallen to a little over $300,000 last year from more than $1 million in 2011.

Thursday's budget hearing suggests that lawmakers will be scrutinizing their own spending this year with a new resolve.

Typically, the Legislative Council — the bipartisan House-Senate committee that handles lawmakers' internal business and budgeting — forwards a status quo spending plan to the finance committees in each chamber without asking its own nonpartisan support staff to suggest reductions.

The $52 million spending plan initially presented at Thursday's meeting included an increase of $200,000, or a little less than half a percent.

But after an hourlong, closed-door executive session, committee members voted to strip out a request for a $500,000 project from the ombudsman's office, saying they want to move it to the capital budget instead. Then, they decided to hold the budget proposal in the committee while legislative leaders discussed potential cuts.

"In times of tight budget, there's an interest in trying to identify some additional savings before we actually move it forward," said Rep. Sam Kito III, D-Juneau, who chairs the Legislative Council, in an interview after the meeting. "It was agreed that we need to spend more time looking at the budget to figure out if we can provide some better recommendations."

The House Finance Committee is also planning four subcommittee meetings on the Legislature's budget, including one for public testimony, in a significant shift from prior years. Typically, legislative leaders agree on adjustments in private before unveiling them in a single, brief hearing.

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