Legislators must pass a budget by midnight if they want to keep collecting per diem

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

Today legislators are doing their traditional mad dash to wrap up work before midnight marks the end of the 121-day legislative session. And, as is tradition, the Legislature is already discussing the possibility of overtime to take care of unresolved issues like the operating budget, the dividend and the crime bill.

This year, though, they have new pressure to get the budget done on time.

If legislators fail to send a fully funded budget to the governor by the end of the day, they’ll no longer be able to collect their daily per diem checks. That’s thanks to new ethics rules passed last year.

“If a bill that fully funds the operating budget has not, within the first 121 consecutive days of a regular legislative session … been passed by the Legislature, a member of the Legislature is not entitled to a daily per diem allowance for a day the Legislature is in session after that 121-day period until the first day after a bill that fully funds an operating budget is passed by the Legislature.”House Bill 44, 30th Legislature

The current per diem rate is $302, a rate set by the Legislative Council and based on the Department of Defense federal per diem rate. Legislators living within 50 miles of the location of a session are not eligible for per diem, so Juneau legislators do not currently receive per diem. The same would go for legislators living near a special session. It also doesn’t apply to legislator salaries.

The per diem penalty would only apply to the failure to pass a fully funded budget. The unresolved crime bill and even the failure to set a dividend amount would not prevent legislators from collecting per diem during an extended session or special session.

“The one constitutional duty you have is the budget,” said former Rep. Jason Grenn, the Anchorage Independent who authored the legislation, in an interview today. “This really came to me in the environment of when I ran in the summer of 2016, the Legislature had just been called into their fifth special session in two years.”

Grenn pledged not to take per diem if the Legislature went into special session. That ended up costing him about $23,000 in per diem compared to other legislators who collected everything when the Legislature spent an historically long time in special session in 2017.

He said it’s ultimately a measure that’s supposed to restore some trust with the public, who complained to him while campaigning about legislators collecting hefty per diem payments while gridlock snarled any progress.

As for the current state of things, the Legislature is close to resolving the budget and could still do so before midnight.

The conference committee is set to meet sometime today and close out the last remaining items of the operating budget, leaving the size of the dividend for a separate battle. Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy said at a news conference in the morning that a special session would certainly be an option if the Legislature fails to resolve the budget, the dividend or crime bill before the end of the session.

The Legislature’s uniform rules says the conference committee report must sit for 24-hours before it can go to a vote, but like all other rules the Legislature can vote to waive it and send it to a vote tonight.

Grenn said everything’s in place to be done, but he’d still be surprised if it gets done before midnight.

“I don’t have the best inside scoop to it all, but it seems like they’re really close and it’s one of those things that on paper they should be able to get it accomplished,” he said. “I’ve been there and you’re 12 hours away from trying to pass out a budget and everything, I’d be surprised as anyone else if they really did get this through the conference and then through both bodies in the next 12 hours. I’m sure a special session is coming.”

Grenn lost re-election last year, but said as of today he’s not missing Juneau.

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