Thursday, June 20, 2013
Should Lawmakers Receive Per Diem Pay Outside Juneau for Personal Business?
Lawmakers are in day 18 of the special session but not all of them have been in Juneau the entire time, but many are still collecting their per diem.
As lawmakers continue to haggle over a capital spending budget in Juneau, some are taking brief trips away from the halls of the legislature.
Some have medical issues, others have state business to do and still others are taking a personal leave of absence.
But so far, Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, is the only legislator who has told the state to keep his per diem check.
Per diem is payment for expenses incurred by the 57 lawmakers who live more than 50 miles from the state capital.
The payment is $232 a day.
"During regular session they probably rent apartments or homes. During a special session they are paying probably at a hotel," said Pam Varni, executive director for the Alaska Legislative Affairs Agency.
In Anchorage, like in many major cities in Alaska, lawmakers have an office where they can get work done during the off-session times. It may surprise many Alaskans to learn that lawmakers don't even have to stop by here to claim per diem when they are supposed to be in session.
“So the way it works is the legislator takes responsibility for it [per diem]. That legislator is accountable for it [per diem] and if there is ever any question, you know, folks need to talk to their legislator," said Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak.
There are no rules that require a lawmaker to do actual work to get the per diem, which is an addition to their annual salary and business expense account.
But is the public the right group to police lawmakers?
Legislators have different opinions and reasons as to whether they would take the money even if they were leaving for strictly personal reasons.
"That means that I am paying rent here...I suppose I could check out of my hotel for one day and see if I could get a room when I got back but that doesn't, you know…I wouldn't do it. I would keep my room to make sure I had a place to stay when I got back down there," said Rep. Alan Austerman, R-Kodiak.
"If I was on personal business, I wouldn't take per diem,” said Sen. Stevens.
For now at least, lawmakers are left to themselves to decide what's legal and what's ethical when it comes to receiving per diem pay.
It’s an ambiguity none of the leading members of the Alaska House and Senate say they think needs to be changed.
But, in today's political landscape after years of ethical clouds in Juneau, should it be?
KTVA has sent an email to every state senator who has been excused from the special session over the last 18 days.
KTVA is in the process of making the same request of house members and will have more information available Friday.