Lawmakers poised for salary hike

Posted: Monday, March 23, 2009

Alaska's legislators are on the verge of a big salary increase, and it will come without two things many had hoped to avoid: a public vote and tougher conflict of interest rules.

Under a bill that slipped below the public's radar screen last year, legislative salaries are scheduled to increase this year from $24,012 to $54,400 unless both houses of the Legislature pass bills to reject the increase before March 28.

Bills blocking the raises are stalled in both the House and the Senate, and show no indication of being able to reach the floor by the deadline.

Sen. Con Bunde, R-Anchorage, incurred the ire of his colleagues by introducing a bill seeking a public vote.

In the House, Rep. Scot Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, did the same by introducing a bill that would delay the raises until after the next election.

"I still have the bruises to show for it," Kawasaki said.

Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, said she supports pay raises herself, but isn't willing to force a vote that many lawmakers feel is politically risky.

"There will be many people who will be put in a tough spot," if they are forced to vote on a pay raise, she said.

The Legislature has twice increased its own pay, but both attempts outraged the public and failed. One was repealed by referendum, the other by the Legislature itself in the face of a second referendum.

The process set up to establish the pay raises was designed in a way that insulated legislators from taking a controversial vote. It created a State Officers Compensation Commission to set a pay level, which would go into effect automatically unless a bill to reject it is passed.

The commission was then stocked with former legislators and others favoring pay raises.

It's "awkward," Kerttula said, that the state was flush with oil money when it passed the bill last year, but is now facing deficits while many Alaskans are losing their jobs.

Salary commission Chairman Rick Halford, a 24-year veteran of the Legislature, acknowledged the process wasn't typical, but that nothing else has worked to get needed pay raises for many years.

"It isn't the way things usually work, but the way things usually work isn't working," Halford said.

The commission's proposal doubled legislative salaries. But in exchange it eliminates per diem payment to legislators for work they do between legislative sessions. It did not address session per diem or office expense accounts, both of which it deemed to be outside its power.

Office expense accounts, $8,000 for House members and $10,000 for senators, can be spent on whatever a legislator wants, including taken as salary.

All those sources of compensation together brought the average legislator's salary to $68,000 last year, according to Empire estimates.

Whether Alaska should have low-paid "citizen legislators," who get most of their income from outside jobs, or full-time "professional" legislators has been debated since the days of the Constitutional Convention, according to Gordon Harrison, author of "A Citizen's Guide to the Alaska Constitution" and a member of the Salary Commission.

"We want, and we love, the concept of a citizen Legislature," Halford said.

The need for employment outside the Legislature means some citizens will have conflicts of interest that bar some from serving, he said.

"We have very high expectations with regard to conflict of interest," he said.

The Alaska Legislature, however, mostly exempts its members from any conflict of interest concerns. That means members who work for the oil industry can vote on oil tax issues.

It also allowed legislators to work as "consultants" to businesses with interests before the Legislature without violating the Legislature's conflict of interest rules.

Some past instances may have violated federal law, however, and a U.S. Department of Justice investigation of those conflicts of interest is underway.

Rep. John Coghill, R-North Pole, chairs the House Rules Committee, which decides which bills go to the House floor for a vote. He said he favors going on the record with a vote, but would not be doing so because it likely would not pass.

"At this point there is not enough support to reject the commission's report," he said. It would take a groundswell among members to change that position, he said.

A Senate bill to reject the raises has been referred to three committees, generally an indication the leadership does not want a bill to pass. It still sits in the first of those committees without a hearing scheduled.

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