Legislators begin pay hike debate

Some question public reaction to increasing salaries in a recession

Posted: Thursday, February 19, 2009

Alaska Legislators hoping for a pay raise may have to stand up and say so with a vote.

As it now stands, if legislators do nothing, their salary will go from $24,012 to $50,400 next year. In exchange, the practice of paying legislators for extra days worked outside legislative sessions, called long-term per diem, will end.

That will increase formal pay for all legislators, and for some it will nearly double.

"I very much believe you are worth it," said Rick Halford, chairman of the State Officers Salary Commission, a group established by the Legislature to set pay levels for lawmakers and other top state officers.

Halford is a former top legislator, and said that one of his regrets is that he left the Legislature without improving pay for his fellow lawmakers.

The commission he headed also recommended a pay raise for Gov. Sarah Palin, but withdrew that recommendation when Palin declined the raise.

The commission's recommendations will take effect automatically unless the Legislature passes a bill blocking the raises within 60 days.

Most legislators appear to want higher pay, but say their colleagues are afraid to cast a vote for a pay raise for fear of angering voters.

Last week, Sen. Con Bunde, R-Anchorage, introduced Senate Bill 106 to do that.

Senate President Gary Stevens called a special meeting Wednesday to discuss how to respond to the bill.

Bunde said the bill actually had some good points, such as eliminating long-term per diem. He said he doubted everyone who claimed it really worked that much.

"There are people who claim long-term per diem virtually every day of the year," he said.

Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, said offering better pay might make it possible for more women and younger candidates to run for the Legislature. McGuire is one of only three women in the 20-member Senate.

Still, she questioned the public's reaction to increasing pay while the country is in a recession.

Halford said the issue has been controversial in the past, but that might be changing. Editorial coverage and public hearing comments included many positive statements, he said.

"There was some nasty blogging comment," he acknowledged.

Better pay might have helped keep around some respected, knowledgeable legislators, such as former representatives Ralph Samuels and Mark Hanley, he said.

"They might have stayed longer and done more good for the state," Halford said.

Halford said that while he liked the idea of a "citizen legislature" as envisioned by the state's founders, in reality Alaska's legislators have to be able to confront powerful interests to represent the state.

"You are the board of directors of one of the great resource corporations on the face of the earth," he said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 586-4816 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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