Alaska editorial: State lawmakers should receive salary, no per diem

Posted: Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The commission appointed to address pay rates for top state officials was on the right course last week when it called for a uniform salary among legislators.

The current salary structure for legislators allows great variation in their compensation. While the variation is intended to reflect differences in the amount of time individual legislators put into the job, it doesn't really do that.

Some legislators who work hard voluntarily forego the pay they are due. Others, even those who are among the less industrious, can almost double their base salaries without too much effort. The average voter can't tell which is which, short of hiring someone to tail their legislators.

The State Officers Compensation Commission suggested all legislators be paid $50,400 annually. That appears to be a huge pay raise from the current $24,000, a figure that has remained unchanged for more than a dozen years. However, many legislators already take home more than $24,000, for a couple of reasons.

Legislators can collect per diem to provide a salary and cover expenses during special sessions, and it appears that all traditionally do so. (Special session pay can be significant - in 2006, it topped $30,000 for many legislators.) All legislators who live outside Juneau also collect relocation expenses to compensate for the annual move to Juneau. And all accept state reimbursement of their travel expenses for official business.

The most significant variation in pay rates between legislators arises from individual decisions about whether to collect "long-term per diem." Each legislator is eligible for $150 per day if he or she attends a public meeting or puts in four hours or more on legislative and constituent business.

But look at the variation in 2006 between Interior legislators' salaries plus long-term per diem: Rep. John Coghill - $34,512; Rep. David Guttenberg - $35,862; Rep. John Harris - $44,012; Rep. Jim Holm - $24,012; Rep. Mike Kelly - $27,162; Sen. Al Kookesh - $35,412; Rep. Jay Ramras - $24,762; Rep. Woodie Salmon - $28,812; Sen. Ralph Seekins - $24,012; Sen. Gene Therriault - $37,662; Sen. Gary Wilken - $24,012.

The most well-paid legislator that year was Sen. Bert Stedman of Sitka, who collected $46,212. Rep. Richard Foster of Nome was second at $45,762. Harris, the House Speaker, was third. In all, 12 of our 60 state legislators earned more than $40,000 in salary and long-term per diem in 2006. Five took the minimum amount of $24,014.

The pay differences are hard to justify. Does anyone think that Sen. Stedman worked twice as hard as Sen. Wilken? No. Sen. Wilken simply opted not to request compensation for the time he worked while not in session.

Legislators who take that option are making an honorable decision. But it's one that inevitably puts other hardworking legislators in a difficult position. Do they try to match the generosity of their frugal peers by foregoing the pay, or do they collect the per diem for the work? What are the potential political costs of taking the per diem?

This is an especially difficult position for younger legislators, those who have families to support and those in districts that tend to shift between political parties. We shouldn't discourage legislative service by younger people who are not independently wealthy, but that's what the current system can do - by creating peer pressure to forego fair compensation for that service.

The state would be better served if it paid all legislators the same rate and expected them all to represent their constituents well.

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