Legislative travel budget shrinks, but per diem payments boom

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JUNEAU (KTUU) - Three Alaska lawmakers spent thousands of state government dollars to attend a five-day policy conference last year in Russia: Sens. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, Donny Olson, D-Golovin, and Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak.

The Alaska State Capitol

The Institute of the North tour was held in September -- months after policymakers tried and failed to close the multi-billion dollar budget gap with new taxes and smaller Permanent Fund dividends -- and was billed by the organization as an opportunity to visit Moscow and Murmansk to learn about the country's economy and Arctic strategy.

Legislative spending records were released this week detailing that trip, which cost the State of Alaska $17,000.

According to the new Legislative Affairs Agency records, Stevens was the most prolific traveler in 2016, personally spending more than 10 percent of the overall amount lawmakers spent on travel. The cash went so he could attend various policy gatherings all over the world.

For example, in just over one month, the state paid for his trips to policy conferences in Chicago, the District of Columbia, Portland, and Vancouver learning about education and insurance policies.

Stevens declined to comment on his travel spending.

Former Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, attended a roundtable in Norway. She also billed the state for trips to Seattle, Calgary, and Quebec in December after her replacement had already been elected.

Rep. Bob Herron, D-Bethel, who lost his seat in November, also made several trips to attend policy conferences: he went to Calgary, Maine, Seattle, and Yellowknife.

Even with those international and Lower 48 trips, overall legislative travel spending has dropped dramatically, down to $311,000 in 2016 compared to the all-time high of $1.1 million in 2011.

However, another category of spending hit an all-time high last year: per diem, the extra pay lawmakers receive for each day they are in session or working in another capacity for the state.

The proliferation of per diem during overtime sessions -- and when lawmakers are attending far-flung conferences -- is drawing criticism from some members of the Legislature

(Story continues below interactive data visualization, which app users can find here.)

Per diem rates are based on a federal calculation and vary with the season and location that work is performed. Juneau rates last year started at per day $213 but ballooned to $247 per day when the summer season arrived and a political standoff persisted.

Between salary and per diem alone, lawmakers were paid anywhere from $10,590 to $11,610 per month during session.

The daily bonus pay and protracted overtime bouts is why, even though travel spending was down, overall spending by lawmakers was among the highest it has been in the past decade.

Given the recent tendency for lawmakers exceed the 90-day statutory limit on legislative sessions, and even the 121-day constitutional limit, some members of the Legislature are now calling for an overhaul of the per diem system.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, has introduced a bill for the second year in a row that would freeze per diem payments at the 90-day mark unless an operating budget has been passed.

"You see that with the court system," Wielechowski said in an interview. "They have a certain amount of time to get their decisions done, and if they don't get their decisions written within six months, they don't get paid anymore."

"We've got to get our job done in time," Rep. Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, said when asked about per diem during a news conference. "That was another thing I heard knocking on doors. It was consistent: 'You did not do your job on time.'

"I think the constitutional amendment if we don't pass a budget in 90 days is a good one."

Even beyond salary and per diem, lawmakers have access to several pools of money: a $50,400 salary, cash to move to and from the capital city for the part-time regular session and any special sessions, and a business expense account (in 2016, $16,000 for representatives and $20,000 for senators) that can be used for anything from plane tickets to laundry to flowers.

Counting all of those funding sources, in 2016, the average state lawmaker earned $105,183.

(Thee average excludes Rep. Max Gruenberg, D-Anchorage, who died last year as well as his successor, Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, also a Democrat.)

There was a notable difference in spending among senators who supported the 2016 bill to restructure the Permanent Fund and to use some of its earnings to help pay for government.

The House did not hold a floor vote on the bill, but the 14 senators who voted to approve S.B. 128 spent an average of $8,100 on travel compared to the slightly less than $1,000 average the five dissenting members spent on travel.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been corrected to accurately reflect Sen. Lesil McGuire's travel spending.

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