January 28

By James Brooks

The Alaska Legislature needed only three days to introduce and unanimously pass a bill that will block a reduction in its own pay.

On Thursday, the Alaska House of Representatives voted 37-0 to oppose a plan approved by an independent compensation commission earlier this year. The vote came one day after the Senate unanimously approved a bill blocking the plan. With the House’s vote, the bill now goes to Gov. Mike Dunleavy for his acceptance or veto.

If the governor were to veto the bill, the votes in House and Senate indicate enough support for an override.

Legislators in both the House and the Senate said the amount of the cut was “punitive” and not based on the actual cost of keeping two households — one in Juneau during the legislative session and another in their home districts.

In early January, the Alaska State Officers Compensation Commission voted 3-1 to cut legislators’ daily expense payments, commonly called per diem, from $307 per day to $100 per day and raise salaries from $50,400 to $64,000 per year to partially compensate.

The result would be a gross cut of about $11,000 for a legislator who requests expense payments for every day of a 121-day regular session, from $87,547 to $76,100.

That proposal automatically comes into effect after this year’s election unless this week’s bill is enacted.

The net reduction in legislative pay would be larger than the gross cut because the expense payments are not taxed, and salaries are.

Legislators also would be ineligible for expense payments during special sessions called by the Legislature, and they would have to submit receipts for all expenses.

Rep. Kevin McCabe, R-Big Lake, said that when he tried to find housing for this year’s legislative session, he was told that a furnished one-bedroom apartment in Juneau would cost $3,200 per month.

Other legislators said that the reduction would discourage anyone but the independently wealthy from running for office, creating a Legislature that doesn’t represent the state.

“You’re going to see a bunch of wealthy, retired people deciding the business of every one of our constituents in our districts across the state, and only their ideology will be present in this room,” said Rep. George Rauscher, R-Sutton, describing the possible outcome.

Rep. Sara Rasmussen, R-Anchorage, was absent from Thursday’s vote but said she supports it.

“There were only four members of the legislature who were 35 or younger serving in the 31st Legislature. Now, during the 32nd Legislature there are five. I bring up these statistics because I believe diversity in our policy-making bodies is incredibly important,” she said in a letter to the compensation commission earlier this year.

Rep. Ron Gillham, R-Kenai, was also absent; his legislative aide said he supports the rejection of the commission’s recommendations but had a personal emergency. Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage, was the third absent lawmaker and didn’t respond Thursday morning to a text message or a call about the proposal.

The $11,000 cut is larger than prior estimates; this year’s $307 per-day figure is based on the federal reimbursement rate, which tends to increase each year. Last year’s $293 figure, cited in debates Thursday, would have resulted in a cut of about $9,000.

From 2015 through 2021, the average legislator collected $85,400 per year in salary and expense payments. Daily payments were lower in those years, but legislators were frequently called into special session.

The amount of per diem paid during those extended sessions created a public outcry that inspired the salary commission’s efforts to limit it.

The commission’s four members said their goal was to eliminate a possible financial incentive for legislators who work more slowly than needed.

The commission’s chairman, former state Sen. Johnny Ellis, had proposed a plan that would have paid legislators about $79,000 per year, but commission member Lee Cruise argued for a much lower figure, and the commission compromised.

Reached after the House vote, Cruise said he was surprised by the unanimity shown this week.

“I think it’s fascinating that they’re gridlocked for the past five years on almost everything, but they can come together in the House and Senate on this,” he said.

He said he tried to represent the outrage of the general public while serving on the commission, and believes that this week’s votes show a “huge disconnect between the legislators and the people they represent, and it’s along both parties.”

“It amazes the hell out of me,” he said.

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