By WIN GRUENING
The State Officers Compensation Commission (SOCC) was established by statute in 2009 to “review the salaries, benefits, and allowances of members of the legislature, governor, lieutenant governor, and each principal executive department head and prepare a report on its findings at least once every two years.”
In the eight years since, the SOCC has met 6 times and each time either made no recommendation or recommended an increase in compensation.
That is, until Wednesday, Oct 25.
On that day, SOCC met for the first time in two years in a downtown Anchorage office building with four new commissioners. The only other person in the room was Department of Administration Division Director, Kate Sheehan, acting as Secretary and providing administrative support.
Commissioners were given information comparing salary, benefit, and allowances with other states for various executive branch positions and legislators as well as historical information related to executive branch and legislative branch compensation in Alaska.
The meeting was recorded and although an open teleconference line was available, no one called in and no one else attended. The sole public comment was a letter from Alaska Rep. Les Gara requesting the committee consider modifying the per diem rate of legislators.
The meeting lasted one hour and 41 minutes. The first half of the meeting was taken up with administrative matters and an explanation of the available reports.
Then, newly-elected Chair Glenn Clary suggested first reviewing executive branch compensation.
With little discussion, several motions were made and unanimously passed to make no recommendation regarding the Governor’s, Lt. Governor’s, and department head level salaries. In effect, the commission recommended executive branch compensation remain at current levels.
Approximately one hour into the meeting, discussion began on legislators’ compensation. Commissioner Duane Bannock proposed for “theatrical purposes” to reduce legislator base salaries by 15%. He further stated it was well-known that “keeping your job is the new raise” and this “sends a statement”.
Chair Clary opined that legislative pay was largely “supplemental income” to legislators and since Alaskans were impacted by a 50% reduction in their Permanent Fund Dividend it followed that “it’s ok to reduce (legislative compensation).”
Despite legislators’ base salaries being frozen at $50,400 since 2010, a final amended motion recommending a 10% reduction passed unanimously.
Apparently the SOCC felt it was within their purview to “send the Legislature a message” even though their only mandated responsibility is reviewing and recommending whether compensation is equitable.
Ironically, the Governor’s salary was validated with little comment despite the Governor’s role in slashing the PFD. Furthermore, the executive branch hasn’t cut any state salaries and, in fact, has continued to negotiate raises for various executive level employees as well as merit increases for rank-and-file employees.
The remainder of the meeting was spent discussing per diem levels legislators receive while in session. Again, Commissioner Bannock and Chair Clary dominated the discussion insisting per diem payments (currently set under Federal guidelines) were too high since they exceeded actual lodging and meal expenses incurred by legislators.
Commissioners settled on a recommendation for legislators to follow the Alaska State Administrative Manual which governs all other state employees when traveling on business. This meant, except for a small meal allowance, legislators would only be reimbursed for actual lodging and living expenses.
Recently, legislator per diem payments ranged from $213/day to $295/day while in session and, under current guidelines, could be spent on food, lodging, or any other legislator expense. Up to now, although not labelled as such, the portion of payments exceeding expenses has always been acknowledged as a form of compensation.
According to National Conference of State Legislatures survey data, this is not an uncommon arrangement as over half of state legislatures in the country currently approve similar per diem payments.
Yet SOCC commissioners gave this no consideration and concerned themselves primarily with whether this would save money. The net effect of both recommendations, should they become law, could reduce legislators’ compensation by nearly 25% by some estimates.
While saving public money is laudable, what’s the real message SOCC is sending?
Many legislators spend over 180 days a year in sessions or hearings – some scheduled with minimal notice. Most legislators are required to move their households twice a year, find housing, set up housekeeping, literally shut down their businesses or take job-related leaves of absence, maintain constituent relations, and continue to serve the public in a variety of ways.
Legislators are rarely recognized for their public service despite their sacrifice of family life and livelihoods.
The Commission action is nothing less than a clear sign we no longer believe in a citizen legislature.
Unfortunately, this would result in a legislative body comprised of the retired and independently wealthy – or unemployables who see the job as a promotion.
Is that the Alaska legislature you really want?
Win Gruening retired as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in 2012. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is active in community affairs as a 30-plus year member of Juneau Downtown Rotary Club and has been involved in various local and statewide organizations.