Legislators wasted very little time in ensuring they got per diem back payments for the recently finished special session.
Four hours and nine minutes after the Alaska Legislature adjourned its 29-day special session this past Thursday, the Legislative Council voted to allow lawmakers to get all of their per diem payments for that session. They voted to do that despite House Bill 44, which passed into law last year and states that legislators wouldn’t receive a per diem — a daily payment meant to cover living and eating expenses — if they didn’t pass a budget on time. This year, the Legislature didn’t pass a budget until June 10.
The Legislative Council, which is a group of 14 senators and representatives in leadership positions that makes decisions related to the Legislature, met Thursday afternoon to discuss a couple items including the per diem question. Megan Wallace, director of Legislative Legal Services, presented to the council and said it’s possible to interpret HB 44 as allowing lawmakers to get per diem after the fact.
The members of the council then voted 12-2 to allow themselves and other legislators to collect per diems for the 29 prior days. Jessica Geary, the executive director of the Legislative Affairs Agency, said Monday that per diem is $302 per day for non-Juneau legislators. Juneau lawmakers, who live at home during session, do not receive per diem. Per diem comes out of the Legislature’s operating budget, according to LAA.
Reps. Delena Johnson and Tammie Wilson, Republicans from Palmer and North Pole, respectively, were the two people to vote against the back payments. Wilson, who said she voted in favor of HB 44, said legislators knew what they were voting for when they passed this bill, and back payments weren’t part of the understanding.
“I know what I believe the intent of the legislation was,” Wilson said during the meeting. “I understand maybe it’s somewhat ambiguous on that and some people have expenses, but it wasn’t ambiguous in my mind.”
Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, who voted in favor of the back payments, also spoke in support of them. He said this law could easily turn the budget into even more of a political weapon than it already is.
“There’s some concern there that it would encourage members to not support an operating budget so that they could drive it into special session and squeeze particular political opponents that might not have the same financial resources that others do,” Stedman said.
Per diem and retroactive per diem, Geary explained, are not automatic. Only those who apply to get their per diem can collect it, she said. As of Monday, only a few lawmakers had filed their per diem claims, Geary said, and it will likely be a few weeks until all of them are in.
Former Rep. Jason Grenn, who proposed HB 44, told the Empire on Monday that lawmakers who voted for the back pay — and those who accept it — “are violating both the spirit and letter of the law.”
“In the end, it’s about Alaskans and earning their trust and hope for what’s best,” Grenn said. “This goes in the opposite direction of what Alaskans want.”
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.