Lawmakers will get retroactively get paid per diem for their special session work, according to an overwhelming legislative panel vote on Thursday.

It’s a move that some feel flies directly in the face of a 1-year-old law saying lawmakers could not receive per diem if they did not pass an operating budget after 121 days under House Bill 44.

Former House Rep. Jason Grenn, ushered the bill through the Legislature, but also had a similar ballot initiative ready for the polls if the bill had not passed.

Because the bill passed last May, the ballot initiative was ruled too similar to the bill and removed from the ballot.

“They are going against, I believe, the letter of the law and spirit of the law,” Grenn said in a phone interview. “They voted for this with complete knowledge of what the ballot initiative was trying to do.”

Megan Wallace, director of legislative legal services, says the statute does not prevent lawmakers from getting retroactive payment.
The measure passed, 12-2.

“I voted on this; I know what I believe the intent of the legislation was,” said House Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, who voted against the measure to pay the per diem. “I know people have expenses. It wasn’t ambiguous in my mind.”

Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, supported the motion for retroactive pay.

“I understand the issue of stopping per diem to encourage the conclusion of the operating budget after the regular session of 121 days,” he said. “My concern is this will turn into just another political weapon or leverage within the building, so there is some concern there that it would encourage members to not support an operating budget so they could drive it into a special session and squeeze particular political opponents that may not have the financial resources that others do."

Lawmakers began a special session May 16 and eventually passed the operating budget, which was transmitted to Gov. Dunleavy also on Thursday.

The Legislative Council approved the $302 payment, but only for the days a lawmaker was “physically present in Juneau” during the 29 days. For example, Sen. Gary Stevens estimates he was in Juneau for nine of the 29 days and would claim per diem just for those days.

Even with the limits placed on the payment, Grenn said that still ignores the new statute.

"The intent of it is, you know your job: Pass a budget within 121 days. If not, per diem is removed," he said. "I think legislators understood the letter of the law and the spirit of the law and now they're changing it when it doesn't benefit them. It's too bad." 

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