Alaska Gov. Bill Walker tapped into public outrage over legislative inaction when he introduced legislation to punish legislators for failing to pass a budget within the 90-day window of the regular session. House Bill 283 and Senate Bill 141 would bar legislators from collecting their legislative pay or per diem for every day past day 90 that a budget hasn’t been passed.
It isn’t winning Walker any friends with Senate majority leadership.
The measure landed with a thud in the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday, where Republicans in Senate majority leadership lambasted the administration for daring to tamper with their pay.
Senate Finance Co-Chair Anna MacKinnon, R-Eagle River, called the proposal a cheap political attack intended to be popular with “the masses” that don’t understand the complexities of governing at a time that budget deficits have erased some $18 billion in savings.
“I know there will be droves of people who think that’s the right punch to throw at the Legislature,” she said. “But I see hardworking men and women, both Democrats, Republicans and independents that are trying to do a good job for the people of Alaska. This has been a rough four years. We have faced billions of dollars worth of revenue shortfalls. … These are tough times. They are not enjoyable for those of us who remain in Juneau and stay away from our families.”
MacKinnon added that she doesn’t think the current per diem rate is “set at the right level,” but said that such a matter should be taken up by the Legislature itself. She also said the change was not only bad policy, but was unconstitutional to boot (though, we’d note that hasn’t stopped the Legislature from passing legislation in the past).
“Talking about taking away people’s per diem for not doing their job is a high-level conversation that will gain lots of popularity,” she said. “But when the people are trying to do the people’s business, you are talking about infringing on the constitution of the state of Alaska and the powers of the Alaska Legislature.”
Senate Majority Leader Peter Micciche, who had just moments before suggested the state consider capping Medicaid spending, chimed in to say that any decision about legislator compensation should be left up to legislators. He said he found Walker’s legislation “offensive.”
“This is a poke that is unconstitutional,” said Senate Majority Leader Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna. “We have work do on per diem issues and incentivizing getting our work done, but it’s something that we know best about.”
Micciche has introduced legislation that would reduce, but not entirely eliminate, per diem payments to legislators. It would also cut, but again not eliminate, per diem deeply during special sessions held when the operating budget has not been passed.
Why this matters
The Legislature and governor have traditionally shied away from tinkering with the budget of the other, so Gov. Bill Walker’s decision to include legislative pay and per diem in a bill that more broadly pushes for an overhaul of the state’s budgeting process is certainly a shot across the bow of legislators.
But after legislative gridlock have twice forced Walker to send out pink slip warnings to state employees, Walker said he can no longer abide legislative bad behavior.
“I believe that’s the same for the Legislature. If they don’t get it done by the 90th day, their pay should stop. Their per diem should stop,” he said when he unveiled the budget in December. “They shouldn’t be rewarded for what I call bad behavior. … It’s just the right thing to do.”
The measure would also cut off the governor’s pay if he doesn’t introduce a budget by the deadline of Dec. 15.
There are certainly nuances to the argument, including the concern that cutting legislative pay might undermine the ideal of a citizen legislature, but the wisdom in airing such grievances in open committee is politically questionable. Both Micciche and MacKinnon are up for election this year, and Micciche is already facing a conservative primary challenge.
Also, not to mention, legislative per diem is almost certainly going to be on this year’s ballot via the legislator-sponsored Alaska Government Accountability Act (which the owner of The Midnight Sun is involved with). That measure would cut off per diem if legislators can’t pass a budget by the 90th day of session, but it leaves legislative pay untouched.