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Alaska House’s expense cut gets cool reception from Senate president

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: March 18, 2017
  • Published March 17, 2017

JUNEAU — The Alaska House's proposal to slash legislators' expense checks appears to face stiff opposition from the leader of the Senate.

Senate President Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, dismissed the House's plan, which would reduce lawmakers' annual payments by roughly $14,000, when asked about it Friday.

"I don't apologize for my compensation," he told a pair of reporters at a media briefing. "I've never done that for any job that I've done. I'm not going to start now. And so, they can do whatever they want, and good on them."

Fairbanks Republican Pete Kelly (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

The House's cut, a total of more than $800,000, was approved in a bipartisan 32-5 vote Thursday. It won't take effect unless approved by the Senate.

Kelly described the proposed reduction as bad policy that would deter "people in the middle section of our population" from seeking seats in the Legislature.

"They have to be able to do this job, and I think what they've done will make it so that they can't," Kelly said, referring to the House. "Ultimately, I don't think it's good for the people's branch."

Kelly's reference to the $275 per diem payments as compensation, however, contradicts the guidance of the nonpartisan state commission that in 2009 raised lawmakers' salaries from $24,012 to $50,400.

Before the salary increase, lawmakers could also claim a "long-term per diem" stipend of $150 for any days worked outside of the legislative session. The commission, in its recommendations, wrote that it was proposing a "fair and reasonable" salary to replace the previous system of compensation, which it said was "regarded as vaguely deceptive."

Per diem during the session, the commission added, "shall not be considered compensation."

The Legislature has evidently agreed, making a directive that Juneau legislators receive three-fourths of the per diem paid to lawmakers who have to travel to Juneau for each session. If a per diem were actually part of a paycheck, it would mean the Legislature was discriminating against lawmakers who can live in their homes during session.

The $50,400 salary hasn't changed since 2009, even as inflation has reduced its purchasing power by more than 10 percent. But the salary commission hasn't recommended any increases, and lawmakers haven't acted to increase their own salaries — a step that the commission, in 2009, described as politically difficult.

But per diem, based on a federal expense rate, can rise or fall. Just this month, legislators got a per diem raise from $213 to $275 when the U.S. Defense Department increased its expense rate.

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