Senate may hold pay raise hearings

Posted: Monday, February 23, 2009

JUNEAU - Pay raises for legislators and commissioners that were set to slip quietly into place over the next year could generate some political heat under a bill introduced in the Alaska Senate.

Without legislative action, pay hikes developed by a five-member compensation commission automatically would take effect on July 1 for commissioners and in January for legislators.

But Sen. Con Bunde, R-Anchorage, has introduced legislation to turn them down, saying it was the only way to provoke a discussion and an up or down vote.

"I don't want this to happen through the back door by default, congressional style," Bunde said. "I think there are valid arguments to be made on both sides of the issue."

The Alaska State Officers Compensation Commission was created by legislation last year and members were appointed by Gov. Sarah Palin in December. The commission recommended bumping lawmakers' annual base salaries from $24,012 to $50,400.

However, the commission action also would dump "long-term per diem," a daily stipend lawmakers may claim for attending meetings or performing other official duties when the Legislature is not in session.

Legislators' base salary has not changed since 1991. The stipend has grown over the years, most recently in 2005, when it jumped from $65 to $150 per day.

The per diem system evolved because of the political difficulty of raising the base legislative salary, according to the commission report.

Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, said he supports the commission recommendations but that he wants Bunde's bill to be heard in committee. The pay change, Stevens said, is justified for the amount of work lawmakers do.

"What person would be employed in a job that pays $25,000 for the time and effort and intelligence that it takes to do this job," Stevens said.

Rep. Lindsey Holmes, D-Anchorage, also supports the increase. Holmes said a higher pay scale could attract a broader range of candidates. Lawmakers tend to be older, retired individuals and people who are financially independent or without family obligations.

"We are one of the youngest states in terms of age and yet we don't have a Legislature that reflects that," Holmes said. "This may help us in attracting some of those people who may be a bit earlier on in their careers."

The report noted a wide disparity in the amounts that lawmakers claimed during the interim that was only partially explained by differences in workload. Compensation for individual lawmakers ranged from $24,012 to $46,632 in 2007.

Sen. Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, said some lawmakers do not claim per diem for fear it could become a political liability in the next election cycle.

"But on the other hand, some people may have abused that," Huggins said. "This takes that system out of play and essentially gives a year-round compensation factor."

Gabe Aceves, director of the Alaska Public Interest Research Group, said the per diem system is useful because it's the only record showing who's doing legislative work over the interim. Under equal pay for all, it would be less clear who is carrying the workload.

"We don't know how many are working every day when they are not in session unless they are claiming per diem," Aceves said.

On the other hand, Aceves said, he would like to see more people run for office, particularly after witnessing the evolving political corruption scandal.

Three former state lawmakers are in prison and a fourth has pleaded guilty.

Last session, some lawmakers suggested that better pay might encourage better ethical behavior.

"I hope they are right that it will attract better candidates for public office because we certainly could use some after what's gone on the past few years around here," Aceves said.

The Legislative Affairs Agency reports the top three legislators claiming per diem in 2008 were Rep. Mary Nelson, D-Bethel, Rep. John Harris, R-Valdez, and Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka. Nine lawmakers claimed base salary and per diem of more than $40,000 that year. Only Sen. Gary Wilken, R-Fairbanks, Sen. John Cowdery, R-Anchorage, and Rep. Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks, did not claim any per diem.

Bunde said he's heard from more than three dozen constituents since he introduced the bill. Reactions were evenly split among those in support of the raises, those in support but not during this time of economic uncertainty, and those who said, "not only no, but hell no."

No House bill has been introduced to turn down the raises and Rep. John Coghill, R-North Pole, said he expects the recommendations will stand.

"It means we are still a citizens Legislature, which is what we are designed to be, and yet people are fairly compensated, which is pretty hard to reject," Coghill said. "There will be a lot of political noise about it but we would endure that no matter what we do."

In addition to legislative raises, the commission recommends raising commissioners' salaries from their current level of either $122,640 or $127,236 to $135,000.

The commission also had proposed raising the governor's salary from $125,000 to $150,000 but dropped the idea after Gov. Sarah Palin said she would not accept a salary increase.

The Legislative Affairs Agency calculates that the cost of the legislative raises will be $1.2 million annually.

The commissioners' increases will cost just more than $203,302 a year, according to the Department of Administration.

The compensation commission was made up of five public members and chaired by former state Sen. Rick Halford.

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