State commission recommends changes in legislative pay

A commission tasked with making recommendations for state legislative pay advanced a proposal Jan. 4 to raise the annual salary for Alaska lawmakers from $50,400 to $64,000, but also to significantly reduce and place limits on the daily allowance for living expenses that lawmakers receive when they are in session in Juneau.

The State Officer Compensation Commission, on a 3-1 vote, called for capping the allowance known as per diem at $100 a day and making the allowance reimbursement-based. Currently, lawmakers who do not live in Juneau are entitled to session per diem of $293 per day, with no requirement that they provide housing or meal receipts.

The commission is charged with reviewing salaries and allowances at least once every two years. Members plan to meet next Tuesday to finalize their recommendations, which would go to the Legislature and by law will take effect in 2023 unless lawmakers pass a bill rejecting the commission’s recommendations.

Board members voting in favor of the recommendations were Kurt Olson, a former Kenai Peninsula state representative; Carrigan Grigsby; and Johnny Ellis, a former Anchorage state senator who described his vote as reluctant. Ellis said he thought the proposed base salary of $64,000 was too low.

Member Lee Cruise voted against the recommendations. He previously proposed keeping the base salary at $50,400 and capping what could be claimed annually in per diem at $12,000.

Cruise said limiting per diem payments would encourage lawmakers to finish their work within the constitutional window for regular sessions.

Per diem has been a hot topic in recent years amid drawn-out regular sessions and often multiple special sessions. The allowance is intended to help with costs related to living part of the year in Juneau. There were four specials each year in 2017 and 2021.

All the special sessions in 2021 were called by the governor.

Sen. Jesse Kiehl, a Juneau Democrat, said most legislators want to “get the work done” and go home, rather than stay in session for the per diem.

Alaska has a citizen legislature, meaning many lawmakers have jobs outside of being senators or representatives. Sen. Mike Shower, a Wasilla Republican, is a pilot.

In written comments, Shower said existing per diem is too high. He said he would propose a reduction “but in a way which allows regular citizens the opportunity to serve and not put their family into financial distress.”

Jessica Geary, executive director of the Legislative Affairs Agency, said “a receipt-based (per diem) reimbursement system would take substantial staff time and may require an increase in staffing levels.”

 

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