Legislators can’t get per diem until a budget is passed, but could they collect anyways?

Alaska State CapitolThe Alaska State Capitol as photographed in March 2017. (Photo by gillfoto/Creative Commons)

Every day since the end of the 121-day regular session on May 15 legislators have been barred from collecting $302 in daily per diem. They won’t be able to start cashing in again until an operating budget is sent to the governor’s desk.

It’s thanks to a law passed by the Legislature last year that prevents legislators from collecting per diem after the regular session if a fully funded budget isn’t passed. With 15 days into the special session the law’s kept more than a quarter million dollars out of reach of legislators.

But will it last? Will that money stay in the state coffers or be disbursed to legislators’ bank accounts?

That’s the worry coming out of Juneau amid talk and rumors that legislators will find a way to get their per diem repaid once they pass a budget.

One thing is certain: It won’t be automatic.

“There’s no provision for automatic repayment of per diem,” said Jessica Geary, the director of Legislative Affairs Agency that handles per diem payments.

The statute enacted by last year’s House Bill 44 makes no mention of repayment of missed per diem once a budget is passed, and revisions to that law passed in this year’s Senate Bill 89 didn’t touch any sections of that law dealing with per diem. Neither law deals with legislator pay, which is still being disbursed normally.

The legislation does, however, say that the Legislative Council “shall adopt a policy regarding … payment of a per diem allowance.” Geary said the Legislative Council could vote to make per diem payments retroactive.

“It would take an action by the Legislative Council,” she said.

But what form that would take and how much legislators would get paid under such a policy is unclear. Traditionally, legislators must be present in Juneau and apply for per diem during a special session to receive it. Some legislators also opt not to apply for per diem payments during special sessions even when they’re eligible.

Geary couldn’t comment on what form such a payment would take.

“That’s up to them,” she said, noting that Legislative Affairs hasn’t been tracking legislators. “We haven’t even posted claim forms.”

‘Slap in the face’

Former Rep. Jason Grenn, the author of House Bill 44, says it would be a bad move for Legislature, especially at a time when so much focus is on state spending and the dividend.

“What a slap in the face to the public if they do it,” he said. “They might as well have a sign on the door that says ‘my integrity is for sale: $300 bucks a day.’ Voters will be furious.”

Grenn was one of the legislators who opted not to take per diem during the interminable special sessions of 2017, his first term in office. He said in total he missed out on about $23,000 in per diem payments but stuck with it because it was one of the most common issues he heard while on the campaign trail.

When asked if he’s concerned that such a move might happen, he said, “I’m never surprised how people react when you mess with their bank account.”

By the numbers

The earliest a budget could be sent to the governor’s desk is June 5. The Senate’s next regular floor session is on Monday, June 3, and the next one for the House is on June 5. The special session is set to expire on June 14, which is when Dunleavy said the state will prepare to alert state workers of possible layoffs due to a pending government shutdown.

Determining a precise cost of the per diem that was “missed” is difficult. Traditionally, legislators have had to be in Juneau to be eligible and not every legislator would collect for eligible days. Legislators living within 50 miles of a session’s location are always barred from collecting per diem (this currently covers the three Juneau legislators).

Given that the earliest day legislators could begin collecting per diem is June 6, the maximum that House Bill 44 would keep out of legislators’ hands is $361,494 (21 days, 57 eligible legislators and a $302 per diem rate). For the reasons mentioned above, the actual per diem costs if legislator could be collecting would be far lower.

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