(Governor Dunleavy Summarizing the State Officers Compensation Commission Report, 3/21/23)
Bottom Line Up Front:
- On January 24th, the State Officers Compensation Commission (SOCC) submitted its final report on salary adjustments to the legislature for their acceptance or rejection. The commission chose to give pay raises to the governor, lieutenant governor and state department heads, but to maintain legislator salaries at the level established in 2010.
- On March 6th, the final report was rejected wholesale by the legislature.
- By last Tuesday, every member of the commission had either resigned or been fired by the governor (most were fired) and a meeting was hurriedly scheduled for the next day.
- Last Wednesday, the five brand-new members of the commission met for their first time and passed a new final report in a meeting that lasted less than 15 minutes (including public testimony and the election of a new chairman).
- On Monday, the governor declared that he had “vetoed” the legislature’s prior rejection of the commission’s recommendations, and is asking the legislature to accept the new report, which now includes a $34,000 salary increase for every legislator.
Editor’s Note: Legislator salaries have remained unchanged for more than a decade and are in need of reform, but the events of the last two weeks are truly beyond the pale.
There are few more suspect issues in politics than public officials voting to give pay raises to themselves. In fact, one of the first two amendments proposed to the Constitution was an amendment to ban members of Congress from voting to increase their own salaries. Increasing the salaries of politicians immediately begs the question “are the taxpayers getting what they pay for?” The short answer is invariably “no.”
Public members of the State Officers Compensation Commission have been quite public with their assessment of the legislature’s performance over the past few years by repeatedly refusing to increase the salary of legislators. Last year, to make their position exquisitely clear, instead of approving a pay increase, they voted instead to cut legislators’ compensation. Given that a majority of Alaska legislators voted to cut Alaskans’ dividends each of the last seven years, I am partial to their assessment. If the public has the right to expect the legislature to follow the law, taxpayers clearly aren’t getting what they paid for.
To provide a transparent way for the public to observe and participate in the process of adjusting the salaries of state elected officials, Alaska legislators passed a law in 2008 establishing the SOCC. The SOCC is empowered to propose changes to the salaries of all state elected officials and state department heads that will become law automatically if the legislature does not pass a law rescinding those recommendations within 60 days. The commission is empowered to submit a report to the legislature as often as once per year, but not more than that.
Specifically, the law (AS 39.23.540(a)) requires the commission to submit its recommendations to the legislature “at least once every two years, but not more frequently than every year.” By submitting a second report to the legislature after the legislature has already acted on the first report, the commission is violating the plain meaning of state law, which prohibits the submission of additional reports. Simply referring to additional reports as “amended reports” cannot rewrite the fact that the legislature has already taken action on a bill. The legislature may act to adjust salaries on its own at any time. It is only the once annual commission report that is time-limited.
State law (AS 39.23.540(c)) requires that the commission submit a preliminary report to the public by November 15th for public comment before it is authorized to issue a final report. Notably, the commission website lists its preliminary findings for each of the last several years, but not for this year. You won’t find public comments posted for this year’s recommendations either. This year, the commission failed to publish its preliminary findings or to solicit legislators for public comment.
State law (AS 39.23.500(d)) requires that members of the commission meet “at least twice” before submitting recommendations to the legislature. As the commission was just reconstituted last week, no member of the commission has yet had an opportunity to attend a second meeting, which is just as well since the 10-minute meeting they did attend hardly constitutes an opportunity for the type of careful deliberation laid out in state law.
State law (AS 39.23.590) exempts the commission from the Open Meetings Act because it has its own unique requirements for transparency and the seeking of public input before the commission may make its recommendations. In accordance with AS 39.23.500(c), the commission must provide 20 days written notice to its members before holding a meeting. By calling a meeting for the very next day, the commission violated the plain meaning of state law. The Open Meetings Act provides for members of a government entity to waive meeting notice requirements under specific circumstances. The statute that grants authority to the Compensation Commission to effectively write state law pertaining to public officer salaries, gives members of the commission no such authority.
Instead of asserting that it is still following a legal process and now moving to sweeten the deal with a $34,000/yr salary increase for every legislator, the administration should come clean and admit what must now be clear to everyone; regardless of whether legislators accept or override the governor’s veto, this year’s commission report is FUBAR.
Lest we forget, the administration can submit new pieces of legislation to the legislature at any time. It should do so, not piggyback a commission process that left the racetrack sometime last year and hasn’t yet found its way back.
If you ask me, the current crop of legislators haven’t even earned their current salary, much less a pay increase. The commission is right when it recognizes that many in the legislature don’t deserve a competitive wage. However, the commission was still wrong to cut legislators’ future compensation because that new candidate for office who hasn’t yet won election, and who hasn’t done anything to harm anyone (yet), may absolutely deserve it.
It only takes meeting one great candidate for office who can’t afford to serve to make you realize there’s a problem.
Just my two bits.