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Legislative Accounting Practices Questioned

Published On: Nov 05 2013 09:34:01 PM AKST

Politicians say there needs to be more accountability with office account funds. (11/5/2013)

JUNEAU, Alaska -

Every winter Alaska's elected lawmakers spend at least 90 days in Juneau, hashing out the laws and governing policies that shape our state.

Most of these public servants leave their full-time jobs and family to temporally relocate to the capital city, tending to the state's business.

It’s a big commitment but most politicians say it's a privilege to serve.  But do the laws they pass also offer lawmakers a financial privilege, one that comes at the expense of those they represent?

In fact, Alaska’s legislators rank in the top five nationwide when it comes to annual compensation.  The legislature's financial ranking follows a 2009 decision by the State Officers Compensation Board, doubling the salaries of all 60 senators and house members’ $50,400 per-year.

Only Massachusetts, Ohio, Illinois and Michigan pay their lawmakers more annually.  North Dakota, which has 23,000 less residents than Alaska, pays its legislators only $12,560 annually.

"It’s not a 9-to-5 job, i can guarantee you that, even in the interim, we're doing a lot of work," said Sen. Dennis Egan (D-Juneau).

Egan is one of three Juneau area lawmakers to receive 75 percent of the $235 per-Diem lawmakers get on top of their salaries during the session.  There may be more than meets the eye to with these salary increases: Office Accounts.

Each representative gets $16,000 per-year, senators get 20,000 which can be spent on everything from constituent pizza parties to training for staff.

"We use our office accounts for publications, communities that I represent we contribute to different sporting and school activities and newsletters and things of that nature," said Egan.

But Anchorage Democratic Senator Berta Gardner says there is a quirk in the accounting process that allows legislators to pocket any unused portion of the office account money.  She’s introducing legislation to make sure the leftover cash reverts back to the general fund.

"What's wrong with it is, it's a way of giving us a big pay raise and the way it’s done discourages some people from using it for communicating with their constituents, all of us should be doing the best job we can at that and some people do and some don't."

Gardner’s bill would require lawmakers to accept office allowance only as taxable income, or choose to have it administered through the Legislative Affairs Agency, which tracks funds for accountability.

"If the bill passes which I hope it does, we will absolutely be square with the IRS requirements, we will spend the money only on office expenses and the balance of unspent funds will be retained by the state, not in our pockets."

A bipartisan house and senate committee is tasked with setting administrative policies for the legislature, including the rules governing the use of office funds.  The group says it is committed to regular review of system.

The Legislative Council Committee is chaired by Rep. Mike Hawker (R-Anchorage), who told Channel Two he didn't want to comment on the debate over office funds until the full committee's review is complete.

Hawker’s committee is currently debating a Facebook policy for lawmakers and staff, an issue that committee has dealt with for years.
Critics on both sides of the political spectrum say addressing the office accounts issue should take priority:

"The small issue of expense accounts with the legislators to me is transparency," said Executive Director of the Alaska Policy Forum Dan Boyle.

Boyle's non-profit organization advocates limited government and fiscal accountability.  He supports Gardner's bill.

"There is a bigger problem in Alaska, and the bigger problem is total state spending," said Boyle.  "This account that we're talking about now, this office accounts, is basically about a million dollars total, that's not small, but it's peanuts compared to the overall state budget of about 9 billion dollars."

Egan, a member of the Republican dominated Senate Majority and Legislative Council doesn't think abuse of office accounts is a major issue.

"If you have a legislator who's really enthused about representing his or her constituents, that money is well spent."

But that's the "if" that worries Gardner. She argues if that money is being spent wisely, lawmakers shouldn't be afraid to prove it

"I think it's the right thing to do, and I think it's what Alaskan's expect.  They didn't look for us to give ourselves a 20,000 dollar pay raise."

Representative Hawker says he hopes to complete his analysis of the office account review situation before the legislature reconvenes in Juneau this January.

As for a review on salaries
The non-partisan State Officers Compensation Board issues salary increase recommendations for lawmakers, commissioners the governor and lieutenant governor.

A board member told Channel Two he couldn't comment on any salary issue until its next meeting, which is Wednesday morning at 11:00 am.