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Panel urges pay raise of nearly $6,000 for Parnell, salary hikes for commissioners, too

Pat Forgey
istockphoto

JUNEAU -- Gov. Sean Parnell and other top state officials are slated to get pay raises within the year, but state legislators who have already been quietly boosting their own pay won't get official salary increases this time.

The State Officers Compensation Commission met this week to decide politically sensitive questions about how much state leaders should be paid, and made a preliminary decision to make several increases. The raises still need final approval by the commission, as well as the approval of the Legislature.

The raises had not been publicly sought by those affected, and Rick Halford, commission chair, said there was no private lobbying for them either.

"I think they originated entirely with the committee," Halford said following the meeting.

Halford, a Republican former state senator from Chugiak, has served on the commission since its creation in 2008.

Among the decisions made during this week’s meeting were raises for Gov. Sean Parnell, currently making $145,000. The salary commission decided that next year he should be paid $150,872, which would include a cost-of-living raise, as well as getting another 2.5 percent raise the following year.

His current salary is currently just above the mid-range for other governors across the nation.

The commission also provided pay raises for commissioners, the heads of the state's top departments, beyond what the Legislature gave them this year. It increased the department commissioners' base pay as if they had received cost-of-living raises in previous years, and from which future raises already in law will be calculated. They are already slated to get a 2.5 percent increase next year.

Commissioners now will get $146,142 starting July 1, if the increases are approved.

Commissioner pay this year is $136,350, as required by statute.

The decision to increase commissioner pay by that amount meant that pay for the governor needed to be increased as well, to keep it above what his subordinates earn.

"The whole system gets out of balance if you don't adjust the governor's salary," Halford said.

Salary commission member Gordon Harrison, a retired legislative employee from Juneau, said the raises for commissioners were more than he'd anticipated supporting. He said he'd planned on supporting an increase to about $140,000, but went along with other commission members and agreed to the bigger increase. All the decisions made this week were unanimous.

Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell will also get an increase, to $119,657, with a 2.5 percent increase next year.

Commission members suggested calling the raises "wage adjustments" rather than "salary increases" to make them more politically palatable.

The salary commission also took steps to address an issue in salary schedules for top executives that sometimes means that promotions result in pay cuts. Many commissioners are paid less than their top deputies, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars less.

The salary commission decided that when a deputy is promoted to a top job within their department, they get to keep their previous salaries while they are in the job.

"We've got all these deputy department heads who are making more than their boss," said commission member Tom McGrath, owner of an Anchorage electronics supply company.

"Some of them will take a substantial reduction (if promoted), which, to my way of thinking, it is very difficult to ask someone to take a reduction" when they're promoted, he said.

The salary commission also decided to allow commissioners who live in Juneau to receive the same geographic salary differential that other state employees receive. State officials say Juneau is 5 percent more expensive to live in than the Anchorage area, and that three current commissioners live in the capital city.

The salary commission was set up by the Legislature to shift the politically risky decisions about the pay of legislators and other public officials to an independent body. The decisions it makes take effect automatically unless rejected by the Legislature.

Commission members considered whether legislators needed another pay increase, but decided against one.

Legislators got pay increases as the first act of the newly established salary commission, created by the Legislature in 2008.

Later, legislative leaders gave themselves an unofficial additional salary increase when they increased the size of legislator office accounts, which they take as salary. Legislators also get per diem payments while in session, providing another unofficial boost to their total compensation.

That brought average legislator pay to $80,000, an Alaska Dispatch analysis found earlier this year.

"I think it is quite a generous and adequate compensation package now," said Gordon Harrison, a commission member who is a retired legislative employee.

Commissioners said they may still amend the changes they're proposing when they next meet Nov. 4.

"None of them are hugely significant or expensive, but I think we've got to just sense what will be accepted by the marketplace of public opinion," Halford said.

That's one of the reasons the salary commission needed to act by consensus, as a divided recommendation would not get public support, he said.

The commission will hold a yet-to-be scheduled public hearing on the proposed raise before making final decisions and sending them on to the Legislature.

Halford said that the commission's current proposal is as high as raises would go, and may not eventually be that high.

"My inclination is we'll probably do less than what was proposed," Halford said.

Any new salary increases would begin July 1, 2014 when the new fiscal year begins.

Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com