State commission balks at cutting legislators’ pay

A state commission charged with setting the salaries of legislators will not recommend a 10 percent pay cut for lawmakers.

In a split 2-2 vote, with one member absent, the State Officers Compensation Commission declined to recommend slashing legislators’ pay from $50,400 per year to $45,360 annually starting in 2019. In a separate 4-0 vote, the commission recommended suspending the per diem expense payments of lawmakers who live within 50 miles of the state capitol.

As long as the Legislature meets in Juneau, that will affect only Juneau’s three legislators.

Legislators’ salaries (and the salaries of the governor and cabinet) have been set by an independent commission since 1976. The commission’s recommendations must be specifically rejected by the Legislature or they become effective.

Commissioner Duane Bannock of Kenai, a passionate advocate for the pay cut, sounded audibly disappointed as he argued in favor of the wider pay cut.

“I’d cheerfully accept $45,000 a year to be a member of the Legislature,” he said.

He pointed out that the commission in 2009 voted to double the Legislature’s salary to current levels.

“Their pay was doubled in 2009, and I believe this commission has a duty and responsibility to keep government in check,” he said.

Bannock and committee chairman Glenn Clary of Anchorage voted in favor of the pay cut. They were opposed by commissioners Richard Strutz of Anchorage and Scott Cunningham of Kenai. Commissioner Mike Miller of North Pole was absent from the meeting, setting up the 2-2 final margin.

“I’m against reducing people’s pay,” Strutz said, referring to the fact that 10 sitting state senators would have their pay cut before their next election. All 50 other lawmakers are up for election this fall, before the pay cut was scheduled to take place.

No one offered public testimony on the day of the vote; only seven people (including the Empire) were listening to the telephonic meeting.

The cuts were proposed in an October meeting of the commission, and it compiled its preliminary findings in December, ahead of Tuesday’s final vote.

Rep. Sam Kito III, D-Juneau, and former Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho offered frank opposition to the proposed cuts in letters sent to the commission.

“My overall impression is that the commission has made its proposals less to provide for equitable rates, than to make concrete its frustrations over perennial stalemate in the Alaska Legislature,” Botelho wrote.

Kito likewise said the commission’s recommendations didn’t appear to be based on rational information. In a phone call with the Empire, Kito said the suggestions appeared to be “punitive and political in nature and not actually a valid path forward” for budget cuts.

He suggested that commissioners didn’t offer any rational backing for their decision.

“To me, it’s a punitive decision rather than a rational decision. As an engineer, I try to make my decisions, especially fiscal decisions, on rational information,” he said.

Kito is one of three lawmakers who will lose expense payments under the commission’s suggestions, and he said that while serving in the Legislature is “a labor of love,” he also has to pay his bills. He has a daughter in college now.

If anyone thinks lawmakers are getting rich off their salaries, “they are very much mistaken,” Kito said.

“I believe I can do positive things for the district and the state,” he said,” but in order to continue to do it, I need to get paid.”


• Contact reporter James Brooks at james.k.brooks@juneauempire.com or call 523-2258.


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