Commission nixes Palin pay increase

State salary panel pushes ahead with boost for legislators

Posted: Sunday, January 11, 2009

A state salary commission has backed off of an earlier recommendation for a pay raise for Gov. Sarah Palin, but is continuing with a recommended $15,000 average raise for legislators.

The long-term per diem payments vary greatly, with some claiming payments for most days they're not in session, while a few claim nothing at all. Commissioners said the average increase would be about $15,000 under their recommendation.

Other legislator pay, such as session per diem, office expense accounts and travel reimbursement, would not be changed.

The State Officers Compensation Commission, created by the Legislature last year with the hopes of higher salaries for legislators, had earlier recommended salary increases for Palin, top department heads and legislators.

The recommendations will increase pay for top state officials by about $1 million, with the bulk of that going to legislators.

Neither the governor or department heads had sought the salary increases, and Rick Halford, chairman of the commission, said Palin announced she would reject an increase.

"The governor has said if there is a pay raise for her office she will, I believe, donate it to charity or otherwise not take it," he said.

With Palin uninterested in the raise, at least before she stands for re-election, the commission abandoned its earlier proposal to raise her salary from $125,000 to $150,000.

"Under the circumstances, we have decided to drop the recommendation for the governor's salary," said Gordon Harrison, a member of the commission and a former Legislative Research Agency director who lives in Juneau.

Commission member Mike Miller, also a former legislative leader, said he supported increasing the salary for Palin and Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell but agreed to Palin's request on her own salary.

"I personally think the governor's and lieutenant governor's salaries should be moved (higher), but I understand the political side of that." he said.

The commission's recommendations are important because they are unlike almost every other recommendation made by a state committee. After recommendations are formally submitted by Jan. 29, they will automatically become law unless the Legislature passes a bill specifically rejecting them.

Several legislators have said many of their colleagues feared angering voters by deciding to raise their own salaries and they instead chose to have a commission conduct the review to avoid backlash.

The commission held its first public hearing on its recommendations last month and a second hearing was held Saturday morning. Both public hearings received little publicizing by the state and a relatively small turnout for an issue legislators had feared would stir up controversy.

Commission members noted that their had been a lot of comment about the proposal on blogs and the radio as well.

Under the recommendations, legislators salaries, now with a base rate of $24,012 a year, would be increased to $50,400 a year. At the same time, long-term per diem, the money legislators get for working when they are not is session, would be eliminated.

An Empire analysis conducted last year revealed the average legislator earned $68,000 in 2007. The presiding officers of the House and Senate each get an additional $500, which would not change.

Tom McGrath, a commission member from Anchorage, said he supported getting rid of long-term per diem, which causes legislators to be paid at dramatically different rates.

"I think we've done a lot increasing the legislative salary, and the long-term per diem for me had always been problematic," he said.

Some commission members said they felt the Senate President and Speaker of the House should get more than $500 extra, though that might have to wait for future years to be done.

"Thirty years ago, it might have been significant compensation, but it hasn't been for quite some time," Harrison said.

The new salary recommendations also will provide pay increases for the commissioners who head various departments of state government. Their varying salaries will increase between $5,000 and $7,000 to a flat $135,000, at a cost of about $100,000. The legislative pay increases will cost about $900,000.

The state increased commissioner pay levels a few tears ago to make them more competitive with the private sector, and the Palin administration had not requested an additional increase.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgeyat 523-2250 or e-mail

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