Panel begins review of Alaska legislative allowance

JUNEAU — The daily allowance that Alaska lawmakers can claim has become part of the discussion of how the state can reduce its multibillion-dollar budget deficit.

When the Legislature is in session, lawmakers can claim a daily allowance, known as per diem, on top of their regular salaries of $50,400 a year. The amount is tied to a federal rate, which rose last week.

The rate currently stands at $275 a day for lawmakers who do not live in Juneau and at $206 for lawmakers from Juneau attending the session in their hometown.

It has become a discussion point as lawmakers look for ways to close a budget gap exacerbated by low oil prices. Some of the debate so far has touched on how much to further cut the budget, the possibility of reinstituting a personal income tax and reducing the size of the yearly oil wealth check given to residents.

During a subcommittee meeting on the issue Wednesday, Legislative Council vice-chairman Sen. Bert Stedman said he doesn’t see much of a problem with the current allowance structure. The Sitka Republican said legislators have bigger issues to deal with.

The council’s chair, Rep. Sam Kito III, provided comparisons between the current calculation and other federal and state per diem rates. It showed potential savings under those options ranging from about $367,000 to $1.1 million.

Kito, a Juneau Democrat, said legislators sometimes give up well-paying jobs to serve the public. There is a balancing act in determining the right amount of compensation to attract people with a desire to serve, he said.

Each regular session is set for 90 days, though the state Constitution permits sessions of up to 121 days. There were five special sessions over the last two years, featuring budget fights and a state buy-out of a partner in a gas pipeline project.

In an interview, Kito said another factor he’s heard in the per diem debate is the need for legislators who do not live in Juneau to maintain a household back home.

Kito said he doesn’t feel pressure to act one way or another on the allowance issue but noted there is interest among lawmakers in having a discussion.

“I think the concern we have is, making a dramatic change, you end up with definitely a different Legislature,” he said.

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