Columns 2009

Fools rush in

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Based on that, I’m about to be the biggest fool since…well, since the last time fiscal conservatives suddenly discovered that debt incurred by their opponents was bad as opposed to the debt incurred by their leaders.

But I digress.

The topic of this column is one that I enter upon with great trepidation for fear of the ungodly backlash that will ensue once I have made my feelings known. The subject is not the death penalty or parental notice for teenage abortions or even whether we should finally give the Malamute its due as our state dog. The subject is legislative pay raises.

And before you all jump up and down screeching in joy that I’m about to rake a bunch of lazy, good for nothing politicians over the coals for wanting to live like princes at the taxpayers’ expense, let me quickly add that I support the raise. 

Let the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth commence.

In the hope of injecting some reason into an argument that all too often is carried out in an emotionally charged atmosphere where the assumption seems to be that as servants of the people, legislators should be paid slave wages, let’s take a logical and reasonable look at the current situation and what the pay raise would mean.

Right now legislators get paid $25,000 a year for the work they put in during the legislative session.  When they go home, the assumption seems to be that they can just pick up a life or career disrupted for 3 months every year with no problem. Should some constituent require their time or attention when the legislature is out of session, the assumption is that they can just skip another of their regular workdays and handle their constituent’s problem while charging the state per diem for the day they worked. Seems clean, clear, fair and simple…. NOT.

First of all, how many of you have jobs that would allow you to walk away for three months every year, plus occasional days or weeks on top of that for emergency sessions, without great financial hardship? The only employers I know who could offer that schedule to an employee are ones that are EXTREMELY civic minded, or figure having a legislator on their payroll year round isn’t altogether a bad deal. Even if the legislator is self-employed, that’s still a lot of time away from business.

And let’s talk about that per diem for a moment. Since legislators are pretty much their own bosses when it comes to charging that rate, you run the gamut from the Vic Kohring “charge them for a full day if you happen to think about state business while getting up in the middle of the night to relieve yourself”, to legislators who are hesitant to fully charge the state for what they do outside of session for fear their constituents will think they are charging too much.

It’s a no win situation. No matter how you look at it, what you have is a system begging to be used and abused by the less than honorable while still not adequately compensating the majority of legislators who are sincerely just trying to get the people’s business done.  In the end, you have thousands upon thousands of dollars separating the compensation among legislators based on nothing more than their honor in property applying for that outside of session per diem.

Into this messy stew of compensation comes a bill that says we should stop pretending that being an Alaskan legislator is just a three-month a year job with the occasional odd day between sessions. We should acknowledge this and pay our legislators a living wage. Not an exorbitant wage by any stretch. $50,000 is a decent living in Alaska 2009 but is certainly not at the top of any scale. Pay them this salary and eliminate the per diem. Level the playing field. Take away the temptation to be the next Vic Kohring.

Let’s pay our legislators as though we expect them to be the honorable men and women we should be electing to public office. Otherwise, why did you give them your vote in the first place?