On their way out of Juneau, legislators make sure that they’ll get paid

The Legislative Council takes a vote on retroactive per diem during its Thursday, June 13, 2019 meeting. The measure passed 12-2.

Just hours after the special session came to a close without resolution on the PFD or funding for the capital budget, legislators agreed on one thing: That they should get paid.

The Legislative Council voted 12-2 this afternoon to allow legislators to collect the per diem that they couldn’t collect during the 26 days of the special session that it took to finally pass the operating budget. Under the vote, any legislator can now apply and receive $302 for every day they were physically present in Juneau.

The vote skirts last year’s House Bill 44 that bars legislators from cashing in on per diem if a budget isn’t passed by the end of the 121-day regular session. The idea of a back payment has been percolating in the capitol with opinions varying on whether it could be automatic or would take additional action.

Megan Wallace, the director of Legislative Legal Services, told the committee that it would require action of the council to be paid.

“This language does not prevent this body from taking action to provide retroactive payment because the language states that per diem is not to paid until after the budget is passed,” she said. “So now that the budget is passed, with this motion retroactive per diem, in my opinion, would be permissible.”

On two members of the 14-member council voted against the motion: Reps. DeLena Johnson, R-Wasilla, and Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole. Wilson said the vote was out of line with the intention of last year’s bill.

“I can’t support this motion because I voted on this, and I know what I believe the intent of the legislation was,” she said. “I understand some might think it’s ambiguous and I know people have expenses, but it wasn’t ambiguous in my mind.”

Wilson has the backing of former Rep. Jason Grenn, the Anchorage independent who backed the originally legislation. In an interview with The Midnight Sun when the idea was just a rumor, Grenn described the potential for repayment as a “slap in the face to the public.”

The only legislator to speak in favor of the repayment was Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka. He said he’s concerned that barring legislators from collecting per diem would be turned into “another political weapon or leverage within this building.” He argued that the per diem is critical to allow people regardless of their finances to serve as legislators.

“There is some concern there that it would encourage members to not support an operating budget so they could drive it into special session and squeeze particular political opponents that may not have the financial resources that others do,” he said, adding, “We have people from all walks and talks of life and different financial means available. I don’t want to see us restrict membership of the Legislature to retired, financially set Alaskans. It should be available for all Alaskans.”

The maximum a legislator could collect for the 26 days would be $7,852 but few legislators if any were actually present in Juneau for the entirety of the session.

Stedman said legislators who object to the payments don’t have to collect them.

Stedman was joined by Sens. John Coghill, Mia Costello, Cathy Giessel, Lyman Hoffman, Natasha von Imhof and Gary Stevens as well as Reps. Bryce Edgmon, Neal Foster, Gary Kopp, Steve Thompson and Louise Stutes in passing the motion.

All members on the council voted for House Bill 44 last year except for three: Sens. Coghill, Stedman and Stevens. The issue of per diem was not brought up this year when the Legislature reopened House Bill 44 in order to repeal other sections that dealt with legislator conflicts of interest. The decision left the apparently flawed law on the books only for it to be ignored now.

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