Legislative pay hardly meager, numbers show

Mostly hidden supplements help many lawmakers earn a decent annual income

Posted: Sunday, February 11, 2007

Alaska legislators like to talk about their low salaries in a "citizen" Legislature. Actually, thousands of dollars of mostly hidden compensation add up to higher incomes than many of their constituents enjoy.

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And since legislators have great flexibility in choosing whether to earn supplemental income, you could say they are as professional as they want to be.

Legislators typically claim to make about $24,000 a year. That is indeed the base salary.

However, a Juneau Empire analysis of public data shows the average legislator last year actually earned nearly $75,000, more than triple that.

The highest paid legislator earned $88,000 from the state last year.

"Our system of compensation has been a bit of a farce as long as I've been here," said Sen. Con Bunde, R-Anchorage, who has served in the Legislature since 1992.

When legislators say publicly how much they make, they usually claim $24,000. That's what House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez, said in a recent Empire opinion piece.

The reality: Harris last year made $83,363 as a state legislator, according to Empire calculations.

It's still not much, he said, and last year's numerous special sessions made the figure unusually high, Harris said.

"It still didn't make up for the income I lost by not being able to work all summer," he said.

Powerful Sen. John Cowdery, R-Anchorage, chairs both the Senate's Rules Committee and the Legislative Council. He claimed in an Alaska Public Offices Commission filing last year that he made $24,012 from the state the previous year.

The reality: The Empire's calculations show Cowdery made more than $60,000 in 2005 and $67,483 last year.

The commission's disclosure forms specifically state that disclosing legislative pay is not required, said Brooke Miles, the commission's executive director, and Cowdery did nothing wrong by reporting an incorrect amount.

Cowdery was unavailable for comment Friday, but a call to his office was returned by spokesman Jeff Turner, who pointed out that Cowdery was paid well below the legislative average.

Hard to Track

The difference between what legislators say they get paid and what they actually get stems from the way they're compensated.

Each legislator starts with a flat salary of $2,001 a month, or $24,012 a year. The president of the Senate and the speaker of the House each get paid an additional $500.

That amount is so low that legislators need income from elsewhere to support themselves, many say.

"I cannot afford to do this job unless I have outside employment," said House Majority Leader Ralph Samuels, R-Anchorage.

Several legislators and former legislators have said that if they are to avoid any conflict of interest or perceived conflict of interest, they'd have to become "professional" lawmakers with commensurate salaries. In that case, outside employment could be banned entirely.

Few legislators like that idea, however, even those who have been active in ethics reform.

"If you have a professional Legislature, it sounds terrible," Samuels said. "I think a citizen Legislature is the way to go."

In addition to a base salary, each legislator gets "session per diem" for each day the Legislature meets. Last year that amount ranged between $163 and $218 per day for legislators from outside Juneau, according to the Legislative Affairs Agency. The three from Juneau were paid between $117 and $163 per day.

Last year most legislators from outside Juneau got paid between $30,000 and $33,000 in session per diem. Legislators from Juneau got $23,000-$24,000 per year. The Empire calculations included this amount as income.

The theory behind session per diem is that legislators sometimes have to run two households, one in their home district and one in Juneau. Some legislators, however, have been reported living in their Capitol offices and showering in Capitol showers and saving the per diem amount.

Harris said he's heard of some legislators doing that as well, but the practice is "discouraged."

Some income is tax free

Legislators from outside Juneau aren't taxed on their per diem. The Legislative Affairs Agency considers 57 of them as nonresidents of Juneau, even though it paid $10,000 or more to move some of them here.

Bunde has introduced a bill barring the Legislature from paying per diem to legislators who reside in Juneau but said it would only apply to the three who represent Juneau.

Relocation expenses can run as high as $26,000, which is what Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, incurred. Relocation expense was not included in the Empire's calculations of income.

In addition, legislators who travel from Juneau back to their home districts during the session can also be reimbursed directly for a hotel room if their house is rented out for the session, said Pam Varni, Legislative Affairs Agency director for the state. That amount was not included in these income calculations.

When the Legislature is not in session, members can receive what is called "long-term per diem," $150 a day. To qualify, a legislator must either attend a meeting or spend at least four hours of that day on legislative or constituent business.

Claiming long-term per diem is left to each legislator's discretion, according to the agency.

Claims vary widely. Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, put in for the largest amount, working on average more than five days a week when the Legislature was not in session. That made him the highest paid legislator last year, at more than $88,000.

Bunde said he didn't considered that as true per diem and said he'd prefers the term "stipend" so as to not mislead the public. "Truth in labeling, I guess I'd call it," he said.

Sen. Gary Wilken, R-Fairbanks, was the only senator to claim no long-term per diem last year.

"I'm financially in a position that I don't rely on my legislative income to live here," he said. "Some people do."

Finally, legislators get paid an office or business expense allowance. Senators get $10,000 each; Representatives get $8,000 each.

Legislators can either submit receipts for each expenditure to be paid out of that account or can get it in a lump sum from which taxes are withheld. Harris takes his in a lump sum. For purposes of compensation, the Empire included that amount.

Amounts not included in the Empire's pay calculations include travel (average $4,800 per legislator). Rep. John Coghill, R-North Pole, spent more than $24,000 on travel last year.

The information on how much legislators actually earn is difficult to determine. The Legislative Affairs Agency publishes on paper a list of amounts spent on each Legislator's behalf, but does not typically make it available electronically.

It also does not tally the amounts, and excludes long-term per diem from its total compensation.

The Legislative Affairs Agency also refuses to release the amounts of total income it reports to the Internal Revenue Service on legislators' W-2 forms.

APOC's Miles said that maybe it is time for the commission to include state pay in legislator's financial disclosure reports.

Miles said her agency has previously not required it because of a belief that the information was readily available elsewhere.

She has since heard reports that the numbers are less readily available than she'd thought.

"That makes me think it needs to go on that form," she said.

Miles said she'll ask the commission whether it wants to require disclosure of that information by legislators. That request is likely to come at the commission's March meeting, she said.

2006 Selected Legislator Pay

SessionPer Diem OfficeExpenseLongtermPer DiemBaseSalary TotalPay

Rep. John Harris, R-valdez $31,251 $8,000 $19,500$24,512$83,263

Former Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, R-Juneau $23,765 $8,000$19,050$24,012$74,827

Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau $24,092$8,000$16,200 $24,012 $72,304

Sen. John Cowdery, R-Anchorage$32,121 $10,000$1,350$24,012$67,483

Sen Kim Elton, D-Juneau$24,091$10,000$6,150$24,012$64,253

SOURCE: legislative affairs agency data, empire analysis

Check AKLegislature.com's 2006 Legislator Pay Chart to see how much all 60 individual legislators were paid by the state in 2006.

• Pat Forgey can be reached at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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