Effect of 90-day sessions may hit staff paychecks

Posted: Friday, March 02, 2007

Alaska voters last year cut the Legislature's work days by a quarter, but didn't cut lawmakers' pay. Legislative staffers, however, may be seeing smaller paychecks.

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With fewer days in the session, legislative staff who work only during the sessions may be making less money next year when the mandate to reduce the legislative session from 120 days to 90 days takes effect.

Session-only staff would likely make less money and might be taking jobs elsewhere, some legislators have speculated.

"Are we going to have some difficulty attracting staff if we are taking 30 days from their annual salary?" asked Kodiak Sen. Gary Stevens, the Republican Senate majority leader.

The Legislature has 567 employees, including legislators. Of those, 187 are hourly or session employees in political or nonpolitical positions, said Pam Varni, Legislative Affairs Agency director.

Democratic legislative staffer Frank Ameduri lives most of the year in Anchorage, but comes to Juneau for the session.

"Logistically, it's a very disruptive lifestyle," he said.

Ameduri, press secretary for the House minority, estimated it cost him $4,000 to $6,000 a year to maintain dual households. Some staffers, he said, give up their apartments to move to Juneau, but then have to deal with the cost and hassle of starting and stopping utilities, and maybe paying first and last month's rent on both ends.

"If you were only doing it for three months, I think it would make even less sense," he said. However, said Ameduri, "Most of these people do it because they really care about it."

There could be other implications as well. A House bill to implement the 90-day session reduces the number of days a state employee will have to work each year to qualify for a step upward in the state pay schedule.

Did you know?

24th Alaska Legislature special session costs:

First 15 days $381,000

Second 30 days $801,000

Third 30 days $777,000

Fourth 7 days $193,000

Source: Pam Varni, Legislative Affairs Agency

Each increment is 115 days. A House proposal to reduce it to 80 days drew the ire of Senate President Lyda Green, R-Wasilla.

"I absolutely oppose that," she said. Why not just reduce it to two days? she asked.

It is not even clear what the shorter sessions will do to the cost of running the Legislature.

Varni said she is planning to budget less money next year for session per diem, the living allowance legislators get while they're in Juneau. But she's planning to budget more long-term per diem, which legislators may claim for work done between sessions.

"It's all very speculative," she said.

The shorter regular session may also mean more need for special sessions, some legislators have speculated.

Rep. Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks, said if more special sessions are needed, that's fine with him.

"I welcome them. They are part of the constitution," he said.

Ramras was one of three legislators who sponsored the citizen initiative that brought the 90-day session issue to the voters.

Thursday, the Senate State Affairs committee, chaired by Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, continued its work researching the issue.

One possibility they considered was having more committees work between sessions, drafting bills and holding hearings outside Juneau. That would make work at the Capitol during the shortened session more efficient, he said.

"You have to make room for committee work outside the regular session," said Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage.

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

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