Legislature's numbers up there with big states'

National official attributes big payrolls, expenses to size of Alaska, comparatively high cost of living

Posted: Monday, July 26, 2004

Alaska is one of the least populated states in the country, but its Legislature looks more like the ones representing millions of people in New Jersey or Florida when it comes to pay, staffing and time spent on the job.

There may be good reasons why Alaska's Legislature seems to be better paid and have more staff than other sparsely populated Western states, said Karl Kurtz, director of state services for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"I think it has to do both with the geographic size of the state, number one - and so that means large districts that are physically difficult to cover - and then the comparatively high cost of living," Kurtz said.

Alaska is bigger than Texas, California and Montana combined. East to west, it measures about 2,400 miles, roughly the distance between Washington state and Florida, and north to south, 1,240 miles. Yet, fewer than 650,000 people live here.

In an analysis this year, the conference grouped the Alaska Legislature with Florida, New Jersey and nine other states as a full or nearly full-time lawmaking body based on three factors: the time legislators say they spend on the job, their pay and the number of employees they have.

Alaska's lawmakers reported spending the equivalent of 70 percent to 75 percent of a full-time job being legislators, including days in session, work during the interim and time spent campaigning.

The council calculated Alaska lawmakers' compensation at $55,000 to $60,000 a year. That includes their base salary of $24,000 along with per diem and other compensation for which lawmakers do not have to submit receipts to receive.

In contrast, legislators in Wyoming, with just over 501,000 people, and Montana, with almost 918,000 people, are paid about $7,000 a year and report spending on average 40 percent to 50 percent of their time on the job, Kurtz said. But, he noted, the cost of living is also quite low in those states.

House Rules Committee Chairman Norm Rokeberg, R-Anchorage, said his experience is that serving in the Legislature is tantamount to a full-time job, especially for House members who have to campaign for re-election every two years.

"You get stuck down there and it's hard to continue your own business and career," said Rokeberg, a commercial real estate broker. The four-month session is spent in Juneau, hundreds of miles from most lawmakers' homes.

Although Alaska's population is relatively small, the issues the Legislature faces and its workload are comparable to other states, he said.

"You don't get the economy of scale there," Rokeberg said.

He believes two ideas he has supported - adopting a two-year budget, rather than budgeting year by year, and trimming sessions from 120 to 90 days - could lead to legislative efficiencies.

The NCSL analysis showed Alaska had five staff members for every legislator. That included not just individual lawmakers' staff, but a host of other employees, such as researchers, maintenance workers and clerks.

That ratio of staff to lawmakers is about the same as in Massachusetts, Illinois and Wisconsin, Kurtz said.

In contrast, Wyoming's 90 lawmakers have just one employee for every three lawmakers. In Montana, the ratio is slightly less than 1-to-1 for the state's 150 legislators.

At 60 members, Alaska has one of the smallest legislatures in the country, which may make its ratio of staff to lawmakers look more generous than it is, Kurtz said. When looking at raw numbers - not considering population or number of legislators - Alaska ranks 26th in the nation for staffing, he said.

Pam Varni, executive director of the Legislative Affairs Agency, said 297 people work full-time for Alaska's legislative branch, and another 152 work seasonally.

Alaska's size and the remoteness of the capital - accessible only by plane or boat - are the reason for some of those employees. About 35 people work in legislative information offices scattered around the state, where constituents can gather to testify on bills or listen to meetings by teleconference, Varni said.

But a big chunk of the employees work directly for lawmakers.

Republican majority House members can hire two aides year-round and three during the session. House Democrats can hire one person year-round and two during the session. In the Senate, all members get two year-round aides. And committee chairmen and Finance Committee members in the Senate can hire an extra employee.

It wasn't always that way, said former state Sen. Clem Tillion, a Halibut Cove Republican, who served in the Legislature from 1962-1981.

"When I went in, the only person who had any staff was the speaker of the House and the president of the Senate," Tillion said.

He recalls that he and two other lawmakers hired one secretary to type for them, paying her out of their $2,400-a-year legislative salaries. Their only offices were their desks on the House or Senate floor.

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