A sudden 67% pay increase of $33,600 for state legislators hastily passed Wednesday after all five members of the Alaska State Officers Compensation Commission, which had recommended no change in pay for legislators, were replaced during the past week by Gov. Mike Dunleavy.
The former commission members had recommend pay raises for the governor and other top executive branch officials in November, which the Legislature unanimously rejected during the past few weeks. Legislative leaders at the time questioned the commission’s usefulness and were working on a bill to implement the raises that were approved by the new commission.
“I have to say I’m impressed with the governor’s interest in this,” state Sen. President Gary Stevens, a Kodiak Republican, said after the new commission’s decision. “The governor went on a limb and did the right thing.”
Jeff Turner, Dunleavy’s deputy director of communications, stated in an email interview after the commission’s meeting the changes in commission members were in response to the legislature’s rejection of the report.
“It was clear that legislative leadership was not satisfied with the work being done by the Alaska State Officers Compensation Commission,” Turner wrote. “In response to that, and in the spirit of cooperation, Governor Dunleavy removed the three commission members to allow new members to be appointed.”
Stevens said legislation he was working on sought to set salaries at half the amount commissioners receive, which matches the amount the new commission proposed and approved.
“We do have a paper trail when we’re working on a bill,” he said, explaining how the commission may have set its amount.
The new recommendation means legislators, whose $50,400 salary has remained the same since 2010, will get a raise to $84,000, assuming Dunleavy takes the required actions to enact them. Legislators also get $307 in untaxed per diem while in session — except for Juneau’s three members who get none — which totals slightly more than $37,000 during a 121-day session.
The governor’s salary will increase from the current $145,000 per year to $176,000, based on a 2% annual increase since the last raise in 2011. Similar increases will raise the lieutenant governor’s salary to about $140,000 and department commissioners — whose last increase was in 2015 — to $168,000.
Alaska ranked 12th in legislative salaries in 2022, although it also is among 10 states that are classified as full-time legislatures whose members receive an average salary of $82,258, according to the National Conference of State Legislators. The raises would rank Alaska fourth among all states in 2022 (although other states’ salaries may have also changed since then), with California topping the list at $119,702 (plus roughly $210 in per diem).
Dunleavy’s current salary of $145,000 ranked 28th among governors in 2021, and during fiscal 2022 his salary ranked 862nd among state employees (below the manager of the Bethel airport), according to the Alaska Beacon. The increase to $176,000 would rank 10th, with New York topping the list at $225,000.
The rapid alteration of salary increases for Alaska’s lawmakers required a rapid-fire series of regulatory actions that still has a few steps remaining.
Three members of the commission were removed Tuesday by Dunleavy, a fourth resigned Monday for what he said were reasons related to the pay increases and the fifth resigned last week to take a job with the state Department of Revenue. The governor appoints all five members, but accepts nominations of names for one member each from the House speaker and Senate president.
Stevens and House Speaker Cathy Tilton, a Wasilla Republican, both said they submitted several names on short notice to Dunleavy for consideration. Both also said they while they expected the rejected pay raises to be discussed by the new commission at its first meeting, they didn’t know beforehand the specifics of the salary amendment that was proposed and approved.
Public notice of Wednesday’s meeting by the newly formed commission was given 48 hours in advance, which meant members had to approve a waiver of the 20-day notice requirement before conducting business. During the 15-minute meeting they unanimously passed an amendment to the previous salary report that added the legislative salary increases to those already proposed for the executive branch.
Some of the new commissioners said their experiences working in Juneau and with legislators convinced them a salary increase is merited.
“I’ve spent time in Juneau working for the state,” said Larry LeDoux, a retired Superintendent of Kodiak Island Borough School District nominated by Stevens. “It was very expensive to maintain two homes and it would have been worse if my wife had come along.”
“I think if we’re really going to have a citizen legislature we need to have a salary that will allow citizens to maintain their households while they serve in the Legislature.”
The next procedural step is Dunleavy is likely to veto the bill the Legislature passed to reject the recommendations in the commission’s report, Stevens said. By law the raises in the report take effect automatically 60 days after it is issued unless rejected by lawmakers.
Turner, in his email, wrote “the governor will review the bill passed by lawmakers regarding the compensation commission’s report and decide what course of action he will take.”
The only testimony at the meeting was offered by phone from a man who said his name was Richard and asserted the Legislature and governor have “failed their duties,” and argued legislative per diem should be reduced with no salary increase.
“The fact is the commission was put in place as a rubber stamp for a big fat pay raise for legislators who have failed at their jobs,” he said.
While commission members and legislative leaders acknowledged numerous residents might offer similar criticisms about increasing politicians’ pay, they said the reality is many lawmakers do struggle with the current amount of compensation.
“I empathize with some of Richard’s comments, but it is expensive to be a legislator in Alaska, to fly and back to Juneau, to handle two households,” said Duff Mitchell, managing director of Juneau Hydropower and one of the new commission members. He said given the effect of inflation on unchanged wages since 2010 “I think it’s the right thing to do.”
• Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at firstname.lastname@example.org