Alaska News

Alaska lawmakers target their own budget for cuts - with some exceptions

JUNEAU — As Alaska lawmakers debate cuts for programs to benefit residents, they've also been deciding how much to spend on their own budget, which at $65 million is larger than eight of the state's 14 executive-branch agencies.

A new proposal unveiled Tuesday by the Senate's Republican leadership would cut another $1.5 million from a House proposal that already sliced $1.2 million from a preliminary spending plan for the Legislature.

But it's hard to know just how those reductions will directly affect lawmakers. The Legislature has been following a byzantine system of budgeting with multiple elected bosses — some of whom have their own accounts that aren't posted on the Legislature's budget website.

"The only way to ever get a true accounting of it is to request it," said Kyle Johansen, a former House majority leader. "There could easily be a way to present it where the public could digest it better."

The Legislature's budget plans are still moving through the House and Senate, and there's still time for lawmakers to propose additional changes. But as lawmakers look for agency cuts to close the state's $3 billion deficit, a few things about the Legislature's own spending habits are clear.

Lawmakers have sharply reduced their travel, which fell to a little more than $300,000 last year from more than $1 million in 2011.

They also approved one-week furloughs last year for almost all their employees. And this year, the state House — under new control by a coalition of Democrats and a few Republicans and independents — has capped and cut salaries for staffers during the legislative session, and says those measures will continue once lawmakers leave Juneau.

But the Republican-controlled Senate has kept its in-session staffing and salaries intact. At the same time, it has 13 aides earning annual paychecks of at least $100,000 compared to the House's three.

The Senate president, Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, wouldn't pledge to make further reductions to staff or salaries even as the Senate has proposed to set aside in its budget $1 million less for salaries and benefits from the latest plan they worked with Tuesday — the budget doesn't say exactly where the cuts will be made, or even if they are from real legislative activity instead of unneeded cash. At the same time, the Senate has been trying to impose cuts on pre-kindergarten, the state university, ferry systems, and health programs for the poor and disabled, specifically targeting those programs.

Asked by a reporter to discuss the Legislature's budget, Kelly said he would send a written statement, then didn't answer five emailed questions. Instead, he pointed to cuts of roughly $10 million since his Republican majority came into power in 2013 — before the Senate was proposing deep cuts to executive branch agencies.

"The Senate will continue reducing its own budget and scrutinizing the state's finances going forward," Kelly said.

Also left intact in the Legislature's budget, so far: lawmakers' daily expense checks of more than $200, and their subsidized cafeteria, staffed by a chef with a culinary degree who creates dishes like sockeye salmon niçoise salad and duck and andouille gumbo.

Even after House leaders raised the prices at the cafeteria, that chamber's Republican minority is now pushing for its closure, calling it a symbol of legislative excess — even though many of the same legislators voted just last year for a budget that kept the cafeteria open.

"If we can't take care of our own house, which is the Legislature's portion of it, then how can we expect any of the departments to do it?" asked Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, during a budget debate on the House floor Tuesday. "How do you justify, at a time like this, a private chef for the Legislature? I can't."

The House majority coalition rejected the minority's budget amendment to close the cafeteria; its members argue that the space, open only to current and former legislators, fosters bipartisan conversations. It's also not quite private, since aides and visitors to the Capitol can order take-out.

But one House leader, finance committee co-chair Paul Seaton, R-Homer, acknowledged that the Legislature's budget could be structured more clearly, given that its details seem to escape even some of his colleagues.

"Legislators don't know what the legislative budget looks like," Seaton said in an interview. "Until you delve into it as a subcommittee and start looking at the particulars of the budget, you don't know."

One quirk of the Legislature's budget is the way it pays for lawmakers' partisan staff. Rather than budgeting salaries under one line item for the full year, the aides are paid out of different accounts that correspond to their bosses' committee assignments or leadership positions — and there are also different pots of money, controlled by different lawmakers, to cover compensation during and outside the annual legislative session.

"I bet you could talk to half of legislators and they don't know that some finance staff are fully funded and some are partially funded by the finance budget," Seaton said.

Rather than try to parse the cash in each account, Gregg Erickson, the former publisher of the Alaska Budget Report, said he used to simply track the number of staff positions.

"The way I did that was to count the number of people in the legislative directory," he said in a phone interview.

Another hurdle to tracking lawmakers' spending is that the annual legislative budget request isn't published on a central site like that of the state's Office of Management and Budget, which posts detailed information on Gov. Bill Walker's requests for executive branch agencies.

Then there are the discretionary accounts set aside for House and Senate leaders. Technically, the entire $11 million "legislative operating budget" — a slice of the full budget that mostly covers out-of-session salaries for aides — is split between two accounts controlled solely by the House speaker and Senate president.

Those presiding officers can then write a memo setting aside separate accounts to be spent by other leaders. Kelly, the Senate president, this year earmarked $10,000 for Soldotna Republican Sen. Peter Micciche, the majority leader; $7,500 for Anchorage Republican Sen. Kevin Meyer, the Senate Rules Committee chairman; and $7,500 for Anchorage Democratic Sen. Berta Gardner, the minority leader. Those allocations were unchanged from last year.

[Read Kelly's memo]

House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, set aside $20,000 for Anchorage Democratic Rep. Chris Tuck, the majority leader, and $20,000 for Anchorage Republican Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, the House Rules Committee chairwoman. That was down from last year, when former Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, set aside $25,000 for Anchorage Republican Rep. Charisse Millett, then the majority leader; $25,000 for Anchorage Republican Rep. Craig Johnson, the House Rules Committee chairman; and $10,000 for Bethel Democratic Rep. Bob Herron, the majority whip.

[Read Edgmon's memo]

Herron used his special fund to pay for part of a trip to a Las Vegas conference in November, after he'd lost his Democratic primary election. His account, and the others, aren't broken out in public budget documents, though the Legislature's nonpartisan support agency provided the presiding officers' memos in response to a records request.

"It's very tightly controlled and the authorizations are very quietly done between the Capitol and the Terry Miller Building," said Johansen, the former majority leader, referring to the office that houses legislative support staff. "The general public has no idea."

Johansen said he thought the Legislature's budget process evolved over time, and wasn't intentionally built to be opaque. But he added that lawmakers now benefit from the complexity.

Kelly didn't respond to a question asking whether he would support a more transparent budgeting process for the Legislature. Seaton said his coalition is "looking at that," but added that it didn't have much time between its formation in November and the start of the legislative session in January.

"You can only do so much at a time," Seaton said. He added: "I would agree there are some improvements we could make. But the extent of those, I can't tell you because we've been up to our eyeballs in structural changes."

Nathaniel Herz

Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He’s been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at ADN and Alaska Public Media. He’s reported around the state and loves cross-country skiing.