Commission defends pay raise proposal

Member says legislators need increase to 'make ends meet at the end of the month'

Posted: Friday, December 19, 2008

Members of a commission recommending pay raises for legislators and other top state officials defended the raises at a public hearing Thursday.

Legislators simply need to be paid more, said members of a commission set up by the Legislature and appointed by Gov. Sarah Palin.

Legislators "have to make ends meet at the end of the month," said Tom McGrath, a member of the State Officers Compensation Commission who supported the raises.

While several commission members said they still supported a "citizen legislature" - typically made up of part-time, generally poorly paid members - it might not be desirable or even possible these days.

McGrath said legislator pay was unlikely to ever equal the private sector, but "they have to make mortgage payments, children have to go to college."

Fellow commission member Rick Koch said he, too, was a proponent of a citizen legislature, as was envisioned when the country was founded.

"The notion is seductive that legislators can do the people's business, then go home and be a farmer or run a plantation," he said.

In Alaska, however, legislative sessions have regularly expanded into special sessions, making holding most other jobs difficult, Koch said.

"More and more they find themselves in special sessions," he said, as well as regular meetings with constituents and others.

At the same time, scrutiny for possible conflicts of interest is growing.

Even with the pay raises proposed by the commission, compensation for elected representatives will still be modest.

The commission recommended boosting legislative salaries from $24,012 to $50,400, but eliminating "long-term per diem," pay for daily work outside sessions that previously boosted salaries. The amounts vary, but the change would increase pay for all legislators, while also leveling it.

The other three members of the commission all have a history with the Legislature. It includes two former Senate presidents, Rick Halford and Mike Miller, and Gordon Harrison of Juneau, former director of the Legislative Research Agency.

The commission also proposed a raise for Gov. Sarah Palin, from $125,000 to $150,000, and leveling pay of Palin's Cabinet members at $135,000.

Commission Chairman Halford said the total of the proposed raises would be a relatively small amount, about a couple of hundred thousand dollars.

The average legislative pay would go to $63,900 with the adoption of the new pay scale and the inclusion of short-term per diem during sessions.

"That's a good start, but is that enough to get good people to run for office," asked Jason Brune, executive director of the Resource Development Council, a pro-industry activist group.

Anchorage's Alan Brockwood said he was concerned about recommending pay raises while the state is facing economic hard times. More accountability is needed, he said.

"They're still finding legislators guilty of corruption," he said. "Do we reward these people, or people we have in the Legislature, do we reward them for misbehavior?"

Anchorage's Steve Garrison supported the raises, and said it was unfair to blame all for the bad acts of a few.

"Even though it's been well known that some legislators have been found guilty of corruption, you can't put that label on all of them," he said.

Ketchikan's Scott Brandt-Erichsen said the current pay rate isn't adequate to get working people in most jobs to be able to serve as legislators, which means the Legislature is now heavily weighted with older, retired people.

"The current wage level, even with per diem, is not adequate cash flow for a family," he said.

After another public hearing in January, the commission will present its final recommendations to the Legislature. Unless formally opposed within 60 days, the raises go into effect automatically.

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