House passes deep cut to per diem allowances

Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, reads through a series of amendments to the state’s budget on March 7. She proposed cutting legislators’ per diem allowances. The House passed a similar proposal.  (Photo by Rashah McChesney/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

The House voted to cut the money to pay for lawmakers’ daily expenses during the legislative session by three-quarters.

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It was one of a dozen amendments to the budget that the House passed, while the body rejected more than 100 amendments from Republican members of the minority caucus.

These per diem allowances are nearly $300 for the first 30 days of the session, then drop to close to $200 a day. They would fall to $50-$75 a day. But the proposal faces a big hurdle in the Senate.

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Chris Tuck said the House passed the amendment after the issue appeared to stall in the Legislative Council, which has members from both the House and Senate.

“We have a subcommittee put together in Leg Council to deal with the per diem, and so far it looked like there was no movement there,” Tuck said. “It didn’t look like the Senate was moving in any way. So, we’re taking action on our side.”

North Pole Republican Rep. Tammie Wilson proposed a cut during the budget process. But it only moved forward when a majority caucus member – Anchorage independent Rep. Jason Grenn – proposed the amendment on the House floor.

Wilson also proposed eliminating per diems for Juneau lawmakers.

“There is no additional expense for those who live within 50 miles of our session,” Wilson said.

The House did not pass Wilson’s Juneau proposal.

Fairbanks Republican Rep. Steve Thompson opposed the three-quarters cut in per diems.

He said it would discourage working people with families from running for the Legislature. He noted that special sessions can extend into the summer.

“We’re setting up to where only retired people, independently wealthy people, or housewives are going to be able to run for this House,” Thompson said. “You take a young person with a family, and we’re here to July, how are they supposed to survive? They wouldn’t want to be here if they can’t make money to support their family.”

The change would save the state $850,000 per year. But House members said it may not survive the budget process in the Senate.

Sitka Democratic Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins introduced a different bill that would change how per diems are set. Under House Bill 181, the nonpartisan Alaska State Officers Compensation Commission would recommend changes to per diem rates.

Giving the commission a say would be a positive step – and has a greater chance of making it through the Senate, Tuck said.

“It takes it away from the politics … and puts it in the hands of some public members, so they can evaluate and see what’s appropriate, what is inappropriate,” Tuck said.

The House ended debate on budget amendments on Friday.

The House is scheduled to debate passing the budget Monday.