Commission delays cutting legislator pay until after elections

A state commission that recently proposed slashing legislator pay backed off from that decision on Tuesday.

The State Officers Compensation Commission met in Anchorage and reconsidered cutting legislators base pay by 10 percent and eliminating session per diem, saying those proposals either went too far or were ill-considered.

The commission had unanimously proposed cutting legislator salaries by 10 percent at an October meeting, but by Tuesday some members sought to nix the 10 percent cut idea, which would have amounted to a salary reduction of about $5,000 per legislator. But a motion to reject the cuts failed on a 2-3 vote, so they will still go forward.

But the commissioners did decide to delay the salary cut until Jan. 1, 2019. That means that most legislators, including all representatives and at least half the senators, will have gone through an election cycle before the salary cut takes effect.

“Anyone who wants to jump in now will jump in with their eyes wide open,” Commission Chair Glenn Clary of Anchorage said.

How much to pay state legislators has long been a controversial and politically charged issue, and pay has gone up and down on political whims.

The 2008 creation of the State Officers Compensation Commission shifted power over legislator and other top official salaries away from the Legislature itself and to an independent five-member commission. Unless the Legislature takes specific action to overturn the commission’s actions, they take effect automatically.

Initially, that got legislators a boost to their base salary, from about $24,000 to about $55,400 a year. Legislators also get additional compensation, called per diem, when they are in session.

But this year the Salary Commission proposed not only cutting base salaries by 10 percent but also eliminating session per diem, which can range from $233 to $295 per day, depending on the season, and instead pay only actual housing costs while away from home in Juneau.

Legislators get money not just from their base salary, but daily payments for each day the Legislature is in session called “session per diem.” That amount changes with the season, but commission staff used $275 per day as an average with which to make cost estimates. Juneau’s three legislators get 25 percent less, as their actual costs are assumed to be lower as they already live in the capital.

During October’s meeting, the commission proposed changing the per diem policy so that the state would pay only actual additional costs of living in the capital. That would have saved the state nearly $1.8 million a year, according to calculations provided by the Legislative Affairs Agency.

But by Tuesday commission members were having second thoughts, and said they were unaware of all of the ramifications of their earlier action, or even precisely how the per diem policy worked, when they made their October proposal.

Commission staff person Kate Sheehan warned them Tuesday that the Legislative Affairs Agency would need an additional position to track receipts for those costs, such as meals, incidentals and lodging.

“It would probably take another accountant on their part,” Sheehan said.

The commission then decided to keep the existing per diem policy in place for 57 legislators, but not those from Juneau. Instead, they proposed a policy under which legislators will not be able to collect per diem while within 50 miles of their primary residence.

“So we don’t pay legislator to sleep in their own beds,” said one commission member.

During regular sessions that would apply to Juneau’s two representatives — Sam Kito and Justin Parish — and one senator, Dennis Egan, but could prevent many additional legislators from collecting per diem were a future special session to be held in Anchorage or elsewhere.

During the discussion, commission members expressed anger over abuses of legislative expense reimbursement policies, such as one legislator who shipped a piano and other items to his rural village at great cost to the state, an apparent reference to Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin. The Legislature earlier this year changed its internal rules to prevent that from happening again, and the commissioners were informed that relocation expenses were not part of compensation amounts that they were charged with setting.

Legislative Affair Agency estimates suggest the new proposal would cost each Juneau legislator more than $20,000 in lost per diem, as well as the $5,000 in reduced salary if adopted.

“It saves us money, just not a lot,” Clary said.

Other commission members are Duane Bannock and Scott Cunningham, both of Kenai, and Richard Strutz of Anchorage. One seat is vacant; that seat is nominated by the Alaska Senate, and a spokesman for the Senate Majority did not return a phone call inquiring about why that appointment had not been made.

Because of the changes made to the commission’s recommendation Tuesday, it will require another meeting for final approval before submission to the Legislature. That meeting has not yet been scheduled.

• Pat Forgey is a freelance reporter based in Juneau.