Alaska Legislature rejects plan to increase lawmaker salaries because of cuts to daily allowances

A ochre and white concrete building in a greay cloudy day
The Alaska Capitol on Wednesday, June 2, 2021. (Nat Herz/Alaska Public Media)

The Alaska Legislature has rejected a proposal that would have increased lawmakers’ salaries but reduced the amount they get for living expenses, known as per diems.

Several legislators cited the expense of living in Juneau for their votes. Rep. Cathy Tilton, a Wasilla Republican, said the costs involved with relocating to Juneau for the session could prevent some people from running for office. 

“We all are aware that the costs here of coming to Juneau are very high, especially for those of us who have other homes where we may be paying mortgages and then we come and we have another rent,” Tilton said.

Sen. Donny Olson, a Golovin Democrat, said he’s concerned how this would affect Alaskans who have a lower income and are thinking of running. 

“Because right now in my district, there are very few people that have the external resources to come on down here, to have two households, to have a family,” he said.

All members present in both chambers voted against the plan, which would have capped the amount legislators receive for living expenses at $100 per day in the regular session, in contrast with $307 this year.

The recommendations also would have raised the pay of commissioners of state departments and the lieutenant governor. They were made by the State Officers Compensation Commission. Under state law, the commission’s plan would have gone into effect unless the Legislature rejected it.

The plan would have reduced the total for per diems during a 121-day session by roughly $25,000. 

Commission member Lee Cruise and several members of the public questioned whether roughly $9,000 per month in per diems are needed to pay for rent, food, laundry and tips in Juneau during the regular session.

The plan also would have increased legislators’ salaries by $13,600, from $50,400 to $64,000.  But the increase after legislators pay taxes on their salaries would be less than half as much as the cut in tax-free per diems.

The commission’s recommendations would also have required legislators to document their expenses. The IRS doesn’t require people who receive per diems to keep their receipts. However, the IRS does require that employers – in this case, the Legislature – base per diems on a reasonably accurate estimate of expenses. 

The Legislature’s rate is based on the per diems for federal government employees. Those rates are based on daily rates for hotels that are of three- or four-star quality and for meals at local restaurants. 

For Juneau, the current federal calculations are $189 for a hotel, $95 per day for restaurants and $23 for laundry and tips. 

Some members of the public said it would be more fair to base the per diems on those paid to state employees. That would limit per diems to actual housing costs, demonstrated with receipts.

The Legislature had until March 19 to act on the recommendations. The Senate voted to block them on Wednesday, one day after the bill rejecting them was introduced. The House voted on the bill on Thursday.

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Andrew Kitchenman is the state government and politics reporter for Alaska Public Media and KTOO in Juneau. Reach him at akitchenman@alaskapublic.org.