(Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)

Opinion: The three-ring public service salary circus

Pay hike is an abuse of power by governor and lapse in integrity from senate president.

  • By Rich Moniak
  • Wednesday, March 29, 2023 8:00pm
  • Opinion

On Tuesday, House Speaker Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, called on her colleagues to reject the latest salary recommendations made by the State Officers Compensation Commission. But she understated the way this all played out. It was a shameless abuse of gubernatorial power. And an uncharacteristic but astounding lapse of integrity by Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak.

It was only three weeks ago that the Senate and House rejected the commission’s recommendation to raise the salaries of the governor and his cabinet. Two SOCC members resigned the next day. Soon after that, Gov. Mike Dunleavy removed the other three.

As I wrote earlier, I believe legislators mainly objected to the fact the SOCC didn’t recommend raises for them. And a year earlier, they rejected an SOCC recommendation that would have reduced the combined salary and per diem they receive. (Juneau’s delegation isn’t eligible for per diem.)

On Monday this week, Dunleavy appointed three new SOCC members. Stevens and Tilton each appointed one. The same day, the new commissioners agreed to waive the statutory requirement to provide 20 days advance notice of a scheduled meeting. Then, in a matter of 15 minutes, they agreed annual legislative pay should be increased from $50,400 to $84,000.

Duff Mitchell, who was appointed by Dunleavy and made the motion to adopt that figure isn’t even sure where it came from.

“I don’t know where I picked it up” he told the Anchorage Daily News, “but they were talking about some kind of benchmark to the commissioners.” Apparently “they” was the person in Dunleavy’s administration who interviewed him for the position. Another SOCC member claimed he was told by one of Dunleavy’s appointed directors to expect the proposal.

Why did they vote on it immediately? The chairman admitted not knowing if the matter was urgent.

And another member said he was uncomfortable with the expedited process.

Dunleavy wasn’t concerned about the obvious display of collective incompetence. It seems he wants raise. So he set the stage for legislators to approve a huge salary increase for themselves by vetoing their unanimous rejection of his raise three weeks ago.

Stevens should have been disgusted by all this. After all, he was ready “to give up on that commission” for having never “looked at things seriously.” But now, despite the fact the newly appointed SOCC failed in stunning fashion to do any real work before making the recommendation, he called their action “admirable” and supports their conclusion. He even thinks “the governor went out on a limb and did the right thing.”

To be fair, Stevens doesn’t expect to benefit from a raise “very much” because he’ll be retiring soon. It’s for “the younger folks that are entering the Legislature” who “deserve to have a livable wage” while serving in office.

I agree with that. But alongside the illegitimate way the SOCC arrived at the $84,000 salary, they failed to even consider the outrageous per diem legislators receive. Last year, almost all of them claimed $307 per day, $189 of which is meant to cover lodging. On top of that, they got thousands of dollars for relocation expenses.

During the session, most if not all are renting apartments, condos or houses for significantly less than $189 per day. Which is why they don’t want their per diem based on actual lodging costs like it is for state and federal employees. Essentially, that unaccountable reimbursement translates to thousands of dollars of illicit tax-free income that should be investigated by the IRS.

The debate over per diem isn’t new. In 2017, the House voted for a 75% reduction, but the Senate blocked it. In 2018, an SOCC recommendation to eliminate it for Juneau legislators was approved. And as I already mentioned, the recently disbanded SOCC attempted to reduce it for everyone else last year.

But Dunleavy and Stevens seem to think it was just fine that the new SOCC totally ignored this issue.

Even though she didn’t say it, Tilton must understand this whole affair stinks. She’s smart to reject it without reservations. And because they’ve betrayed the public trust, she should demand the resignation of all five SOCC members.

Last of all, the Legislature should penalize the circus ringleader by setting the effective date of any gubernatorial raise they approve to the day Dunleavy leaves office.

• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a My Turn or letter.

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