State House Moves To Freeze Public Employee Salaries

House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski (left) confers with other members of the House leadership just before the vote on House Bill 176, April 15, 2015. The bill repeals a 2.5 percent pay raise for state employees scheduled to take effect July 1, 2015. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)
House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski (left) confers with other members of the House leadership just before the vote on House Bill 176, April 15, 2015. The bill repeals a 2.5 percent pay raise for non-union state employees scheduled to take effect July 1, 2015. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

The Alaska House has narrowly passed a bill that would claw back raises for many state workers. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports.

Rep. Steve Thompson, a Fairbanks Republican, made no effort to downplay matters when he offered the legislation on the House floor on Tuesday.

“House Bill 176 is a pretty short bill — but it’s a controversial bill,” said Thompson.

The five-line bill repeals a 2.5 percent cost-of-living adjustment for non-union public employees, which comprise about 2,000 members of the state workforce. Thompson noted the bill would save the state nearly $10 million — equivalent to 90 jobs.

“The question we must answer is: Would we rather cut more people’s jobs or keep salaries steady?” asked Thompson.

The bill was, indeed, controversial. When it came to a vote, it momentarily looked like it was going to fail on a 20-20 split, until Palmer Republican Jim Colver changed his vote.

Most of the opposition came from Democrats. Rep. Les Gara of Anchorage noted that public employee salaries have lagged behind inflation for the past few years. And Rep. Andy Josephson of Anchorage said it was inappropriate for the state to freeze wages when it already committed to a salary schedule with a raise included.

“Fundamentally I look at this and I say: Well, we made a promise. We’re breaching the promise. It doesn’t solve the fiscal crisis,” said Josephson. “And so, I have to be a no.”

But opposition was not limited to Democrats. Four — Mike Hawker of Anchorage, Wes Keller of Wasilla, Cathy Munoz of Juneau, and Gabrielle LeDoux of Anchorage — broke ranks with the majority to oppose the bill.

“I feel very uncomfortable with this bill. I was always brought up to believe a man’s word is his bond,” explained LeDoux in an eight-second floor speech.

But for many Republicans, like Tammie Wilson of North Pole, the fiscal argument won out.

“It is about a $3.5 billion deficit. That’s really what it’s about,” said Wilson. “When these agreements were made a couple years ago, I don’t think there was anybody who was sitting down on those contracts who thought we would be where we are today.”

The bill may still be reconsidered by the House for another vote before being sent to the Senate. In an interview, Gov. Bill Walker said he opposes the policy.

The Legislature is also advancing a similar move that would freeze salaries for unionized employees and back out of collective bargaining agreements. Shortly after the vote on the House bill, the Alaska State Employees Association issued a press release calling the move an “unprecedented assault on state employees.”