Legislators mull pay raise change

Posted: Friday, April 11, 2008

House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez, told what may have been a little fib recently. As with many people both in politics and elsewhere, it was about how much money he makes.

In an angry denunciation of what he saw as wasteful spending on housing for poor people, Harris said those helped with housing need to get out of subsidized state homes once they're back on their feet and employed.

His concern was with some of the residents of Valdez Arms, an Alaska Housing Finance Corp. project in his hometown.

"They're definitely making more than I am right now, I can guarantee you that," Harris said.

Those people should be "booted out," he said.

What does Harris say is his pay as Speaker of the House of Representatives?

"Twenty-four thousand dollars," he said.

Harris' legislative pay last year was actually more than $80,000 for his part-time job representing Valdez, according to Empire estimates. Harris acknowledged that it was more than the $24,000 he initially claimed, but said he didn't know what the total was.

That $80,000 is down from 2006, when Harris and most other legislators' pay was driven up by a record number of special sessions.

This year legislators are considering a bill that could wind up publicly giving them a pay raise for the first time in years, by turning over responsibility for setting legislator pay to someone other than the Legislature itself.

That's a needed change, said Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, House Minority leader, who joined Harris in supporting House Bill 260, sponsored by Rep. Mike Doogan, D-Anchorage.

"We shouldn't be setting our own pay," she said.

Salaries would be set by new commission

Doogan's bill would establish a state compensation commission to set salaries for legislators, the governor, the lieutenant governor and top department heads.

"There's no guarantee this commission would give us or anyone else a raise, but it would give us an evenhanded and dispassionate look," Doogan said.

Questioning Harris on public housing

Officials with the Alaska Housing Finance Corp. say it is unlikely anyone making $80,000 is in public housing because rents are a percentage of income. Anyone making as much as Harris makes from his legislative job would be paying an outrageous amount of rent, twice or more the average Valdez rents, they said.

Harris' downplaying of his legislative salary is common among lawmakers, who both complain about low pay and also minimize how much they actually get paid.

The official legislative salary is $24,012 a year, but supplements to that amount triple the total pay for many. Presiding officers get $500 more.

Legislators' pay includes both their base salary amount, along with session per diem, long-term per diem and an office expense account.

Legislator pay is not totaled by state officials and is not made available online. The Juneau Empire did its own calculations of data provided on paper by the Legislative Affairs Agency.

Among the assumptions in the calculations are that both long-term and short-term per diem is part of their compensation.

It also includes office expense accounts, $8,000 for each representative and $10,000 for each senator. Each legislator can choose to take it in cash and have taxes withheld, as the Legislative Affairs Agency says more than half do, or they can submit receipts and be reimbursed for individual expenditures.

Harris said he takes his in cash. Kerttula takes half of hers in cash.

The Empire's compensation estimates did not include travel or moving expenses, which can run many thousands more for some.

Session per diem is paid every day the legislators are in session and for most legislators doubles their base salary.

The 57 legislators from outside Juneau get extra session per diem, which Kerttula said they deserve.

"I know how expensive it is to live here," she said. And unlike Kerttula and other members of the Juneau delegation, the other legislators typically need to maintain housing in two cities.

The numbers vary, but Juneau's legislators got $122 a day for most of the session last year, while those from elsewhere got $163. Juneau's legislators have to pay income tax on what they received, while it was tax free for others.

For a special session in Anchorage last year, everyone got $278 for the day, tax free for those further than 50 miles from Anchorage.

Long-term per diem goes to legislators when they are not in session, $150 for any day in which they report they work a half-day or more on state business.

Sen. Con Bunde, R-Anchorage, said his complaints about long-term per diem have not always set well with other legislators.

"I've often been counseled about ascribing motives to other people, but I think when long-term per diem was originally put in, it was put in as a subterfuge to hide additional salary," Bunde said.

Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, said on the House floor that legislators' salary has been $24,000 for more than a decade, and that it should be raised with inflation.

"I don't think the voters would retaliate against any of you for giving yourselves, or ourselves, a cost-of-living increase," he said on the House floor.

Among those who have complained about low legislative pay in the past was former Rep. Tom Anderson, R-Anchorage.

Anderson was among those claiming to earn only $24,000 a year, and complained about the low pay to a lobbyist.

"It sucks being a legislator, man," Anderson said, according to a transcript of an FBI wire quoted in the Anchorage Daily News during his bribery trial.

In court filings, Anderson's attorney cited low legislative pay in defending Anderson, who is now serving a five-year sentence in federal prison.

Pay raises prove politically difficult

The last time the Legislature tried to formally raise its pay was in the early 1980s. After a public outcry, lawmakers repealed it the next session, said Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak.

"It wasn't public spiritedness that prompted the Legislature to roll that back," he said, but an effort to head off a voter initiative.

Doogan's bill would hand the pay decision to a salary commission, which he said was a better way of deciding how legislators and others get paid.

"The system we've got now for sure doesn't work," he said.

Harris said he supported the bill only because it required a vote in which legislators would be finally accountable for any decisions the commission made.

Doogan said his bill is still alive, but maybe just barely. After passage by the House, the bill is now awaiting action in the Senate Finance Committee, among many bills stalled there.

Senate President Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, is not trying to kill the bill, said her spokesman, Jeff Turner.

"I don't think she has a problem with it," he said.

There may be a problem with Gov. Sarah Palin, however.

Palin legislative liaison Russ Kelly said the governor doesn't want commissioner pay sucked into a battle over legislative pay.

"If they want to address the Legislature, that's fine," he said.

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

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