A state-appointed panel has acted to slash pay for Alaska’s legislators following years of budget deficits.
Ironically, that panel, the State Officers Compensation, was created by lawmakers hoping for both a pay raise and to shift away from themselves the politically risky issue of their own pay. That worked initially as the commission gave them a big pay raise without the Legislature’s fingerprints on it.
Now, it may backfire, as the only way for legislators to prevent the pay cuts will be to directly vote on it — in a year of budget deficits and re-election looming for most.
The five-member commission met in Anchorage on Wednesday, and took two actions related to legislator pay. First, lawmakers’ base pay was reduced from the current $50,400 each by 10 percent, to $45,360 per year.
“To me, it sends a statement,” one member of the commission, Duane Bannock of Kenai, said.
Legislative presiding officers, meaning the Senate President and House Speaker, each get an additional $500 annually, an amount that was not recommended to change.
The commission members discussed salary cuts for legislators ranging from 5 to 15 percent, before settling on a 10 percent salary cut. The vote was unanimous.
Compensation Commission members include Richard Strutz of Anchorage, Scott Cunningham of Kenai, Glenn Clary of Anchorage and Duane Bannock of Kenai. Clary, Cunningham and Strutz were appointed by the Governor; Bannock by then-House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski and confirmed by Gov. Bill Walker.
The commission meets — or decides not to meet — each year about this time, and sets new pay schedules for Legislators and top officials. The upcoming legislature can either take no action to accept or vote to reject the commission’s actions.
Its members serve staggered terms, so the dynamic on the commission changes regularly and it is not clear why the commission took this action this year.
Legislators also get another type of pay in addition to their base salaries, called “Session Per Diem Reimbursement,” which is pay for each day they are in session. That can range from $20,000 to $35,000 per legislators. Amounts for Juneau’s three legislators are 25 percent less as they are expected to already have housing in the capital city.
Travel to Juneau is reimbursed separately.
During the session, the legislators receive per diem, which is often mistaken for travel per diem, a confusion that over the years has been encouraged by legislators trying to minimize the appearance of their total compensation. That confusion also stems from the term “per diem” which is often used for travel reimbursement. Further, the legislature has linked its “Session Per Diem” to the federal travel per diem rate, currently $295 per day, but which changes depending on the season and with inflation.
The Commission voted to recommend changing that amount to direct reimbursement for expenses, which includes $55 per day for meals and $5 for incidentals. That action will likely reduce legislator pay substantially more than will the salary cut, but that amount has not been calculated.
State administrative officials will calculate that amount and return to the commission with the amount at a not-yet-yet scheduled meeting.
The difference between travel and session per diem appeared to confuse members of the commission, including bitter references to Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, who billed the state for $41,000 in travel expenses. That was separate from the more than $35,000 he also receives in session per diem
Not all legislators collect the full amount of session per diem they are allowed, and last year then-Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau, asked for none.
The Compensation Commission voted unanimously to have legislators be covered by the state’s administrative manual travel regulations rather than having the Legislature do it itself. That change would appear that would eliminate Session Per Diem for the Juneau delegation.
Other state officials for whom the Compensation Commission sets pay, such as the commissioners who head up the primary departments in the executive branch, will not see any changes under the commission’s recommendations. Their pay will remain at about $141,000 per year.
These days in Alaska “keeping your job is the new raise,” Bannock said, explaining the lack of an increase.
Several top state employees, such as leaders at the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation and Alaska Permanent Fund, earn far more than commissioners or even the Governor.
If legislators do not reject the Compensation Commission’s action during next years session it will go into force automatically. It would go into effect for the following budget year.
“They would have to reject the recommendation; if there’s no action, it becomes law,” said Kate Sheehan, director of the Division of Personnel and Labor Relations, who provides staff to the Compensation Commission.
UPDATE / CORRECTION: This article has been updated to include attribution to two quotes. This article also previously incorrectly listed Julee Duhrsen of Anchorage as one of the commission members; her term expired and she was not present at the meeting.
Pat Forgey is a freelance reporter in Juneau.