Immediately after the Senate passed a budget that is partly unfunded, and a Permanent Fund dividend that is arguably the smallest in Alaska history, the Legislative Council met Wednesday to circumvent a state law preventing lawmakers from receiving per diem until the budget it passed, if not passed during the regular session.
In a Capitol building that the public has been locked out of for more than a year, Legislative Council locked the public out further by going into executive session, with no witnesses, to decide that the legislators will be awarded per diem retroactive to May 20, the first day of special session.
That means legislators will get up to $8,790 for the 30 days they will have spent in special session.
“I move that Legislative Council authorize special session per diem payments retroactive to May 20, 2021, for the first special session of the 32nd Alaska State Legislature,” Speaker Louise Stutes read to the council.
In 2019, Megan Wallace, director of Legal Services, explained that Alaska Statute says legislators are not entitled to per diem payments after the 121st day until the first day that the Legislature passes a fully funded operating budget.
However, there is a loophole. “That law does not prevent this body from taking action to provide retroactive payments. The language says it is not to be paid until after the budget is passed,” Wallace told legislators then.
Sen. Lora Reinbold offered an amendment to say that the per diem would be awarded to those legislators physically present in Juneau.
But Sen. Bert Stedman said that was unfair to the legislators whose presence wasn’t needed in Juneau if they didn’t have a committee assignment, and many members are not able to seek other employment, if they are expected to drop their work and return to Juneau for a vote or other matters.
Speaker Stutes agreed with Stedman and said that when members return to their districts, they are often still working on legislative business.
Sen. Gary Stevens said that with Covid, people are working more remotely, and that “we have a good honor system, it has worked well in the past, people put down the per diem they think they deserve, and it’s reviewed by staff and the public has a chance to look at it and see if there is any misuse of it.”
Reinbold said the public will be disappointed because of the reduction of the Permanent Fund dividend decision and the budget. “I think we’re on very thin ice with the ethics law.”
The Reinbold amendment failed, 9-1. Reinbold was also the only legislator on the council to vote against the per diem.