Commission ends per diem for legislators living near session, but rejects 10 percent pay cut

Something might be going on in there.The Alaska State Capitol building as photographed in 2010. (Photo by Kimberly Vardeman/Creative Commons)

The State Officers Compensation Commission was split on whether to reduce legislator pay, but unanimously axed per diem for legislators who can sleep in their own beds during session.

Today’s action will end per diem for legislators whose primary residence is within 50 miles of session starting in January 2019. The commission had also considered cutting legislator’s annual salaries by 10 percent from $50,400 to $45,360, but the motion failed on a 2-2 vote.

The action closes out the commission’s biennial review of compensation for Alaska’s elected offices, and the recommendation on per diem will go into effect unless the Legislature rejects it with a bill (as it did with recommended increases to executive branch salaries in 2014). The commission decided to leave the pay for governor and lieutenant governor alone in this cycle.

[Read: The full proposed recommendations of the Alaska State Officers Compensation Commission]

The case for reducing pay

The commission considered reducing pay for legislators by 10 percent in light of overall cuts to state spending, the reduction of dividends and reductions in pay for “various groups.” The preliminary reductions proposed in November argued, “it is important that (legislators’) wages reflect some reduction to be in line with reductions found elsewhere and to assist in overall budget reductions.”

The proposed recommendations were met with formal, written opposition by former Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho and Juneau Rep. Sam Kito. Both argued the cut in pay and new rules for per diem would negatively impact the field of candidates seeking office.

Commissioner Duane Bannock fiercely disagreed with the arguments put forward by the two, noting that Kito “just so happens to be one of the three legislators who would no longer be paid per diem to sleep in his own bed.”

“I’d like to again address this opinion that Alaska will somehow not attract the best candidates for the Legislature at a pay rate of $45,360 plus per diem for 95 percent of the legislature,” he said. “I sincerely doubt a pay difference of $5,040 annually will be the sole factor for less candidates.”

Bannock noted 74 candidates have already completed the paperwork to begin fundraising for the 2018 election, suggesting that the proposed reduction in pay was still plenty given the kind of work legislators are expected to do in the current political climate.

“One legislator that I spoke to at length, explaining how I came to my conclusion, stated, ‘You’re making this personal.’ Indeed this is very personal to me. Most hard decisions are,” he said. “Specifically, I wouldn’t take the job of the governor or the lieutenant governor for what they’re paid now. However, I’d cheerfully accept $45,000 a year to be a member of the Legislature.”

Opposition from Juneau

The only opposition published at today’s meeting came from Juneau in the form of letters from Kito and Botelho.

“Decreasing the salaries of all legislators, and eliminating per diem for some legislators, will only result in fewer Alaskans being willing to put their names forward to serve their fellow Alaskans in the state legislature,” Kito explained in his letter.

Botelho said the changes would risk the citizen Legislature, arguing the recommendations were driven more by frustration with the Legislature than any concrete evidence.

“My overall impression is that the commission has made its proposals less to provide for equitable rates, than to make concrete its frustrations over perennial stalemate in the Alaska legislature,” he wrote. “These frustrations are understandable, but legislators are best sanctioned at the ballot box, not by curtailing salaries and allowances.

There wasn’t much discussion from the commissioners who opposed reducing legislative pay during the meeting itself. After the fiery testimony of Bannock, Commissioner Richard Strutz said on the issue “I’m against reducing peoples’ pay.”

Strutz and Commissioner Scott Cunningham voted against the change to pay, while Bannock and Commission Chair Glenn Clary voted in favor of cutting pay. All members supported the change to per diem.

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