Alaska legislators fail to block pay hike, but additional action is planned to stop it

Gary Stevens
Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, presides over a session of the Alaska Senate on Wednesday, March 22, 2023. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

Alaska legislators declined to take action Wednesday in order to block a prospective pay raise for themselves and leading members of the executive branch.

Without action, lawmakers will see their salaries rise by 67% — to $84,000 per year — starting Jan. 1. The salary of the governor, lieutenant governor and commissioners in charge of state departments will rise 20% on July 1.

“When we don’t take action, when we passively accept the state officers’ compensation commission report, it may not appear up on the (voting) board in green that we’re accepting it, but we essentially are,” said Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer.

On Monday, Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed legislation that could have prevented a pay increase, causing Speaker of the House Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, to request a joint legislative session in order to override the veto.

On Wednesday, Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, rejected that request and attempts to force a joint session through votes of the full House and full Senate were also defeated.

“I think the governor has stepped forward and worked hard to try to solve an issue that has been facing us for the past 10 years,” Stevens said on Tuesday. “I believe the increase in salary is justified.”

“I think the younger folks that are entering the Legislature, they deserve to have a livable wage,” he said.

Members of the House minority and House majority caucuses said Wednesday that they intend to introduce new disapproval legislation that may offer another way to cancel the raises, but key members of the Senate said they are likely to oppose that legislation if the House were to pass it.

Stevens has previously said he does not plan to run for re-election and said he doesn’t mind if members of the general public disagree with his support for legislative pay increases.

“It doesn’t bother me. What are you going to do? Throw me out?” he said. 

Wednesday’s debates over legislative pay were the latest step in an at-times tortuous process.

In January, the five-member State Officers Compensation Commission recommended raises of about 20% for executive-branch leaders, including the governor, lieutenant governor and commissioners.

The commission didn’t recommend any raises for state legislators, saying it needed to study the issue further.

The commission’s recommendations come into effect automatically unless rejected by lawmakers and the governor. 

Largely because this year’s commissioners didn’t address legislative pay — unchanged since 2010 — legislators voted unanimously to reject the commission’s recommendations.

In place of those recommendations, Stevens prepared a comprehensive salary bill addressing pay for both legislators and executive-branch leaders. That legislation, never formally introduced, set legislators’ salaries at 50% of commissioners’ salaries.

Stevens shared the details of that proposal with staff for Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

“They saw what we were considering,” Stevens said.

A week after the Legislature voted to reject the commission’s proposal, two members of the commission quit, one after accepting a job with the Dunleavy administration, an act that made him ineligible to serve on the commission.

The governor fired the other three members of the commission, who serve at the governor’s discretion.

The governor appointed new members to the commission, with one seat filled by someone nominated by Stevens and another filled by someone nominated by Tilton.

Stevens said he didn’t know the reason for the request.

“I sent four names to the governor, and he selected one of those names. So no, we were not involved in that whole process,” he said.

Tilton said the only thing she knew was that there was a vacancy on the commission, and the only question she asked of her nominees was whether they were willing to serve.

A day after their appointment, the new commissioners voted to cancel a 20-day public comment period and voted to amend the salary recommendations already rejected by the Legislature.

“I wouldn’t say good public process or bad public process, I would say it was definitely an unusual public process,” Tilton said Tuesday.

The new recommendations call for raising legislators’ salaries from $50,400 per year to $84,000 per year — 50% of the salaries recommended for commissioners, similar to Stevens’ bill.

Though the public comment period was canceled, Dunleavy said there’s still a public process.

“Keep in mind, the public process is not just what the commission decides,” he said. “The public process is what the Legislature in the end decides through the discussions through the debates, etc. That’s what’s happening now.”

On Monday, Dunleavy vetoed the bill that legislators used to cancel the commission’s recommendations. That clears the way for the raises to come into effect.

The next day, Tilton requested a joint legislative session to override Dunleavy’s veto, but Stevens rejected that idea.

Sen. Robert Myers, R-North Pole, attempted to call for a joint session by a vote on the Senate floor, but Stevens ruled him out of order and other senators agreed: Myers’ attempt to force a vote failed by a 2-17 margin, with only Hughes agreeing that a vote should take place.

Hughes then called for a ceremonial vote asking whether it is the will of the Senate that the raises take place. That vote was tabled and sent to the Senate Finance Committee for further consideration, effectively killing it.

In the House, Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, attempted to call for a joint session via a floor vote, but his motion was tabled in a 22-17 vote.

Members of the House minority were key to defeating Eastman’s attempt. 

House Minority Leader Calvin Schrage, I-Anchorage, said members of the minority weren’t sure that a joint session could cancel the raises and believe that new legislation is needed. 

He said members of the minority do agree that the raises should be stopped.

“What we’re united in disagreeing with is the process,” Schrage said.

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and X.

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