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Alaska commission advances plan to reform legislators’ per diems, shrink pay packets

An Alaska commission wants to reform legislators’ compensation packages by increasing their base salaries while reducing their per diem expense payments.
Published: Jan. 4, 2022 at 4:10 PM AKST
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - An Alaska commission has advanced a plan to reform legislators’ compensation packages by increasing their base salaries while reducing their per diem expense payments.

If the Legislature adopts the proposal, the base salary for legislators would increase from $50,400 to $64,000 per year after the current figure was set in 2010. Tax free per diem payments, currently eligible for legislators who live outside of Juneau while they’re in session, would shrink from $293 per day to a maximum of $100 per day.

In recent years, legislators have on average claimed $35,000 each year in per diem payments, bumping up their annual compensation packages to over $85,000. This proposed change would increase their taxable incomes and reduce most legislators’ annual pay.

Another change would see legislators mandated to submit receipts to the Legislative Affairs Agency if they want to be reimbursed through their per diem payments. Commissioners argued per diems have been used to surreptitiously increase legislators’ incomes instead of being used to pay for daily living expenses while they’re in session in Juneau.

They said making that reporting mandatory would increase accountability by allowing Alaskans to see how their representatives spend public money on their housing and meals during legislative sessions.

The State Officers Compensation Commission approved the preliminary plan on a 3-1 vote with Lee Cruise, a commissioner appointed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, as the only “no” vote. Final approval is set to take place on Jan. 18, the same day that the next regular session starts.

The changes are currently set to take effect in 2023 after the next state election, but commissioners are investigating whether they could be implemented this year.

There was lengthy debate on Tuesday about the compensation plans and competing ideals for how legislators are paid. The idea behind shrinking per diem payments is to discourage fruitless special sessions.

But if per diem compensation packages are reduced too much, the concern for many current legislators is that fewer Alaskans could afford to serve, particularly if they have young families. Former state legislator Ray Metcalfe testified that reducing legislators’ incomes could increase the risk of corruption.

Some legislators said they don’t just work four months a year, but all year long, and that should be a consideration during debates. The idea of “a citizen legislature,” with legislators returning to full-time work when the legislative session ends, is not the reality, they argued.

Others noted expenses balloon during summer special sessions in Juneau with fewer hotel rooms and rental cars available.

Cruise noted Alaska legislators are already some of the best paid in the country. He wanted to leave their salaries unchanged, saying they should receive an average Alaskan income, and he wanted to put a cap on per diem payments at around $12,000 per year.

“They should only be compensated for the 120 days,” Cruise said. “They go into special session, that’s their own damn fault.”

Other commissioners said that it’s the serving governor who often calls special sessions. They argued putting a cap on per diem payments could give a governor more power to call a special session, knowing it would penalize legislators financially when they need to maintain two households — one in their home districts and a second in Juneau.

Chair Johnny Ellis, a former Democratic state legislator, said he was “skittish” about imposing an annual per diem cap, saying that could change the power dynamics in state politics in favor of the governor.

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