By James Brooks
Alaska Beacon 

House and Senate failed to pass a bill that would have blocked the pay hikes for Alaska's legislators and top executive-branch officials

 


Alaska legislators, Gov. Mike Dunleavy, Lt. Gov. Nancy Dahlstrom and the commissioners in charge of state agencies will see pay raises after the Legislature missed the final deadline for a bill needed to block the increases.

Starting July 1, Alaska’s governor will be paid approximately $176,000 per year, the lieutenant governor about $140,000, and commissioners will receive about $168,000 per year.

Legislators will be paid $84,000 per year, up from $50,400, starting next January.

The increases are the result of a convoluted series of events that saw Dunleavy, Speaker of the House Cathy Tilton and Senate President Gary Stevens wholly replace a salary-setting commission.

With limited public notice, the five new commissioners approved a new pay plan that awarded raises to legislators and top members of the executive branch.

Legislators blocked a pay proposal from the prior members of the commission and could have stopped this new pay hike too, but key members of the Senate were in favor of the pay increase, and House lawmakers stalled on the bill needed to disapprove the increase.

Monday was the deadline to pass the disapproval bill through the House and Senate, and on Tuesday, members of the House took a performative vote, advancing the bill on a 33-7 vote.

Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage and chair of the House Rules Committee, scolded members of the House, saying that the bill could have advanced to a vote as early as March, but lawmakers weren’t willing to sign a “chit sheet” affirming their support for the bill.

“Roughly half this body said, I’m not signing it,” Johnson said, explaining why the bill didn’t advance to a final vote sooner.

Legislators needed only three days to pass a similar disapproval bill through both House and Senate in 2022. That bill would have cut total legislative compensation rather than increase it.

On Tuesday, legislators said this year’s pay increase is difficult to defend.

“We’re going to have a lot of explaining to do. That’s a really high pay raise,” said Rep. Alyse Galvin, I-Anchorage.

Several members of the House said that it makes little sense to increase legislative salaries in a year when the Legislature has gone through all but one day of the session without approving a state budget.

“For my conscience, I have to at least make a statement — cut the PFD, shut down the government, give me a raise — it just doesn’t sit well,” Johnson said.

Reps. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage, and George Rauscher, R-Sutton, were among a small but vocal minority of House members who said the pay increase is warranted — not because of actions this year, but because legislative pay has failed to keep up with duties and inflation. “It may be an unpopular position … but I’ll make the argument because it’s the right argument,” Fields said.

At its current level, legislative pay “makes it impossible for working-class parents to serve,” he said.

There hadn’t been any salary increases since 2011, but the new increase for legislators exceeds the amount of inflation since then.

Legislators are required to maintain a household in their home district and must pay for accommodations in Juneau during the legislative session.

Legislators receive per diem expense payments — those typically add up to more than $30,000 per year on top of salary — but some members of the House said that doesn’t fully compensate for the cost of living.

Rauscher said his take-home pay works out to $39,000 per year, and that means only wealthy people can afford to serve in the Legislature.

“I don’t think just retired people with another retirement (income) should be able to sit here in my seat because they can afford to do what I’m doing,” he said.

Even if the bill disapproving pay increases had passed the House earlier this year, it’s doubtful that it would have passed the state Senate.

“I think it’s a fair salary,” said Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak. “You know, we are dealing with billions of dollars. And I think we want to attract people who may not want to leave the job they have. I think the salary increase may make it more possible for many people to serve in the Legislature.”

Stevens’ perspective appears to be backed by a majority of the Senate, as evinced by a budget vote Monday.

Though they’ve come into effect, the higher pay rates are still subject to the Legislature’s willingness to take money from the state treasury to pay for them.

Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, proposed on Monday to cut the additions from the state budget.

“This is a significant increase, and I can’t justify going home and explaining that to the folks at home with how things are going economically,” Shower said.

Shower’s proposal was defeated, 13-7.

The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization. Alaskabeacon.com.

 

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