Alaska editorial: Let a commission help decide legislator's pay

Posted: Friday, January 13, 2006

This editorial first appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:

Legislative pay is a touchy subject in Alaska. Right now, lawmakers earn a meager salary of $24,012 a year, though per diem pay during and between sessions boosts the total take for most legislators into the mid-$40,000 range.

Adding to the touchiness, lawmakers have the final say over their own pay. While most would like to make more - and should - there no doubt would be a political price to pay for any lawmaker who advocated a salary boost.

So Juneau Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch's proposal to establish a six-member Citizens' Commission on Legislative Salary and Benefits is a good idea. He proposes turning to the public to take up the issue. No commission member could be a state employee, and the commission would report at least every two years with recommendations for lawmaker pay and benefits.

Lawmakers would still have the final decision on their own pay, which is how it has to be under a system where legislators make the laws and appropriate the money. The Legislative Council, a joint committee of House and Senate members, would review the commission's work, and could decide whether to forward all, some or none of its recommendations to the full body for approval.

The panel of citizens - appointed by the Senate president and House speaker - could more readily do what lawmakers themselves hesitate to do: Recognize that being a legislator is far more than part-time work and set the pay accordingly.

Rep. Weyhrauch's bill deserves an early hearing, any amendments it might need, and then passage. Such a panel could put some public pressure on lawmakers to adopt a better system of pay, one that recognizes what the job is worth and avoids the games of per diem between sessions for self-reported, part-time legislative work. A more transparent salary also could help attract more good candidates.

But pay isn't the only thing that needs fixing. What about outside employment, and the disclosure of it? In exchange for a legislative pay raise, Alaskans should demand more restrictions on legislators' outside income. Those issues likely would be beyond the commission's assignment, but better pay could help eliminate or at least diminish conflicts of interest in outside employment.

The bill is a good start, and here are our recommendations to make it better:

• Raise lawmakers' pay to $60,000 a year, with no per diem, but continue to pay moving and office expenses. The added cost to the state of probably less than $800,000 a year is well worth the benefits to the public's trust. Rep. Weyhrauch's bill would tack on an extra $500 a month for the Senate president and House speaker. Fine. Those are fair bonuses for herding the unruly chambers.

• Lawmakers who are self-employed or work for someone else could keep their businesses and/or jobs. In other words, even with a $60,000 salary, Rep. Vic Kohring could do drywalling and painting on his off-days, Rep. Pete Kott could do floors during his off-hours, Rep. Jay Ramras could run his restaurant and hotel businesses, and Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch could practice law.

• Lawmakers could not work as consultants for any company or individual with interests before the Legislature. Even if a lawmaker did so before he or she was elected, that lawmaker would have to stop doing so after the election - before taking the oath of office. The appearance of a conflict of interest is too strong to allow lawmakers to accept lucrative consulting contracts for vague assignments.

• Lawmakers would be required to disclose what they do for a living and who they work for, so that voters would know who they serve besides their constituents. This would include descriptions of any job or self-employment, sufficient to explain the actual work.

The goal is simple: promote as transparent and honest a representative government as possible. Let's pay our legislators well - and insist that they earn it working for us.

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