Legislature(2011 - 2012)BELTZ 105 (TSBldg)

01/30/2012 01:30 PM JUDICIARY

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Heard & Held
Heard & Held
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               SB 168-GEOGRAPHIC COLA FOR JUDGES                                                                            
1:32:38 PM                                                                                                                    
CHAIR FRENCH announced the consideration of SB 168.                                                                             
DOUG  WOOLIVER,  Deputy  Administrative  Director,  Alaska  Court                                                               
System, stated  that SB  168 was introduced  by the  Senate Rules                                                               
Committee by  request of  the Alaska Supreme  Court. It  seeks to                                                               
update  the  geographic  differential   statutes  that  apply  to                                                               
judges.  Under  current  law,  employees  in  the  executive  and                                                               
judicial  branches receive  a  geographic  differential on  their                                                               
salary  to help  offset the  cost  of living  in the  communities                                                               
where they live.  Each community has an estimated  cost of living                                                               
rate  that  is applied  to  the  salaries  of employees  in  that                                                               
community, but  the rules for  judges are different and  have two                                                               
restrictions. The  geographic differential for judges  is limited                                                               
to 17.5  percent of the  base salary,  regardless of the  cost of                                                               
living in  the community,  and it  is applied  to just  the first                                                               
$40,000  of  their  salary.  The  most a  judge  can  get  for  a                                                               
geographic cost of  living adjustment is 17.5  percent of $40,000                                                               
or  $7,000, whereas  other state  employees  in some  communities                                                               
receive  a geographic  cost  of living  adjustment  in excess  of                                                               
1:34:36 PM                                                                                                                    
The   Legislature  has   approved  geographic   differentials  in                                                               
recognition  of the  staggeringly  high cost  of  living in  many                                                               
rural areas  of the state. Anyone  who lives in rural  Alaska and                                                               
works for the  state has their salary adjusted so  it is somewhat                                                               
commensurate  with salaries  in urban  areas. However,  judges in                                                               
rural Alaska  are currently disadvantaged  compared to  judges in                                                               
urban  Alaska. The  Legislature has  made geographic  adjustments                                                               
for  all other  state employees  and  the court  would like  that                                                               
adjustment for  judges as well.  This is  an act of  fairness and                                                               
will  also help  address the  challenge of  filling vacancies  in                                                               
rural communities. This  has been a particular  problem in Bethel                                                               
where  the   Judicial  Council  has  struggled   to  find  enough                                                               
qualified applicants. Upcoming vacancies  in Nome and Barrow will                                                               
also  be  a challenge  to  fill.  Adjusting  the cost  of  living                                                               
allowance may  not solve this problem,  but it is one  thing that                                                               
can be done.                                                                                                                    
MR.  WOOLIVER clarified  that  the current  law  states that  the                                                               
geographic   differential  is   not  applied   to  the   judicial                                                               
retirement, and  the bill does not  seek to change that.  What it                                                               
does  seek  to change  is  the  geographic differential  so  that                                                               
judges are  not disadvantaged simply  because they live  and work                                                               
in rural Alaska.                                                                                                                
He reviewed  a colored  spreadsheet showing  the various  cost of                                                               
living  adjustments,  the number  of  judges  in each  community,                                                               
their base  salaries, the  current geographic  differential, what                                                               
it would be under both  the statutory differential- which is what                                                               
the non-covered  employees in the  Executive Branch  receive, and                                                               
what  it   would  be  under   the  recently   renegotiated  union                                                               
contracts. He  explained that  this gives an  idea of  what other                                                               
employees get in  terms of a differential and what  judges get in                                                               
terms of  a percentage of  their current salary. For  example, in                                                               
the  Second Judicial  District the  differential is  less than  4                                                               
percent of  salary, whereas  in Kotzebue  under the  recent union                                                               
contract  it's  60  percent.  The   bill  seeks  to  tie  judges'                                                               
geographic differential  to the  statutory provisions  that apply                                                               
to  all the  attorneys  that appear  before  them. Whenever  that                                                               
statute is changed, it would apply to judges as well.                                                                           
1:39:03 PM                                                                                                                    
SENATOR MCGUIRE joined the committee.                                                                                           
CHAIR FRENCH reviewed the columns  in the chart. Column one shows                                                               
where the  judge serves; column  two gives the FY13  base salary;                                                               
and  column  three  tells the  current  geographic  differential,                                                               
which is capped at 17.5 percent.                                                                                                
MR.  WOOLIVER reiterated  that the  differential applies  to just                                                               
the first $40,000 of salary.                                                                                                    
CHAIR FRENCH said the yellow  column four shows the dollar amount                                                               
of  the differential,  up to  a  maximum of  $7,000. Barrow,  for                                                               
example, receives  the maximum $7,000  bump to the  $181,440 base                                                               
salary.  He asked  the  meaning  of column  five  that shows  the                                                               
geographic   differential   percentage   applicable   to   exempt                                                               
MR. WOOLIVER explained that those  are non-union employees in the                                                               
executive branch, and they're governed  by the statute referenced                                                               
in the bill.                                                                                                                    
CHAIR FRENCH  asked if  they are  currently getting  whatever the                                                               
geographic differential is, applied to their entire salary.                                                                     
MR. WOOLIVER answered yes.                                                                                                      
CHAIR FRENCH observed that the  green column [six] shows what the                                                               
dollar  amount would  be if  the percentage  in column  five were                                                               
applied to the judges' base salary  in column one. The bill seeks                                                               
to add the amount in the green column to each judge's salary.                                                                   
MR. WOOLIVER agreed.                                                                                                            
CHAIR  FRENCH  asked for  an  explanation  of columns  seven  and                                                               
MR.  WOOLIVER replied  they reflect  the  [percentage and  dollar                                                               
amount]  of the  most recently  negotiated union  contracts. They                                                               
probably reflect the  most recent thinking on the  cost of living                                                               
in the various communities.                                                                                                     
CHAIR FRENCH  observed that if the  bill were to pass  the Barrow                                                               
judge's salary,  for example, would  be adjusted by  36.9 percent                                                               
and  perhaps  as  much  as   50  percent,  given  the  new  union                                                               
MR.  WOOLIVER  responded the  salary  would  go up  whenever  the                                                               
statute  was changed,  and that  hasn't happened  in a  number of                                                               
1:41:49 PM                                                                                                                    
CHAIR FRENCH said he understands  the fairness issue, but wonders                                                               
whether judges'  salaries haven't gotten larger  increases in the                                                               
last  several  years  to  compensate  for  the  fact  that  their                                                               
geographic differentials aren't as good.                                                                                        
MR.  WOOLIVER said  judges receive  good salaries,  but what  the                                                               
bill tries  to address is  that under the current  scheme, judges                                                               
living in Anchorage get a much better deal.                                                                                     
CHAIR FRENCH  asked if  the court  gets stronger  applicant pools                                                               
for Anchorage judgeships than those in Barrow and Bethel.                                                                       
MR. WOOLIVER replied  that's almost always the  case and probably                                                               
always  will  be, but  salary  shouldn't  be another  barrier  to                                                               
getting strong pools in rural areas.                                                                                            
CHAIR  FRENCH remarked  that he  understands the  fairness issue,                                                               
but  there's a  certain amount  of sticker  shock looking  at the                                                               
total  amount.  A Barrow  judge,  for  example, would  receive  a                                                               
[$66,988-$7,000]  geographic  differential  added to  their  base                                                               
MR. WOOLIVER agreed.                                                                                                            
1:44:10 PM                                                                                                                    
SENATOR WIELECHOWSKI said he can  understand the fairness, but in                                                               
some cases  the judge is probably  paid more than twice  what the                                                               
average family earns. In Barrow,  "the food's more expensive, the                                                               
fuel's more  expensive; I  just don't know  if it's  $90,000 more                                                               
expensive," he stated.                                                                                                          
MR. WOOLIVER clarified  that it would not be  $90,000, but agreed                                                               
with the point. It's a lot of money.                                                                                            
CHAIR   FRENCH  asked   how   the   geographic  differential   is                                                               
MR.  WOOLIVER  replied the  [percentages]  in  column five  [non-                                                               
covered  geo-diff percent  applicable to  exempt employees]  were                                                               
set in statute a number of years ago.                                                                                           
CHAIR   FRENCH   asked   if   the   Legislature   developed   the                                                               
MR. WOOLIVER replied  it was before he started as  the liaison to                                                               
the Legislature.  The McDowell group  conducted a study  in 2008,                                                               
and while  the Legislature  didn't amend  the statute,  it's that                                                               
kind  of  information that  the  unions  rely  on to  make  their                                                               
contracts reflect the current cost of living.                                                                                   
CHAIR  FRENCH   noted  that  the  statute   says  the  geographic                                                               
differential  for Kotzebue  is 36.9  percent,  whereas the  union                                                               
contract gives  a 60 percent differential.  He expressed interest                                                               
in knowing how  the Legislature selected 17.5  percent of $40,000                                                               
as the maximum differential.                                                                                                    
MR.  WOOLIVER  replied  the  committee   minutes  were  not  very                                                               
detailed  when this  was adopted  in 1978,  but the  thinking was                                                               
that $40,000  was the  portion of  the salary  that was  spent on                                                               
living.  He noted  that when  the statute  was adopted  for other                                                               
Executive Branch  employees the  geographic differential  was not                                                               
limited to 17.5 percent.                                                                                                        
SENATOR PASKVAN asked what $40,000 would be in 2012 dollars.                                                                    
MR. WOOLIVER replied it was $73,000 in 2011 dollars.                                                                            
SENATOR PASKVAN  observed that  if the  same logic  were applied,                                                               
the top differential would be 17.5 percent of $73,000.                                                                          
MR. WOOLIVER said that's correct.                                                                                               
1:48:28 PM                                                                                                                    
SENATOR MCGUIRE asked for an update  on efforts to get more women                                                               
on the  bench, and how  information came  back to the  court that                                                               
candidates  were  discouraged  from applying  for  judgeships  in                                                               
rural  areas. She  stated support  for the  bill, and  asked what                                                               
data was used to support the request.                                                                                           
MR.  WOOLIVER replied  the evidence  is  anecdotal, largely  from                                                               
sitting judges who are frustrated at  the cost of living in rural                                                               
areas compared  to what they  would be  making if they  worked in                                                               
Anchorage. While  salary isn't always  the motivation  for taking                                                               
the job, it  just doesn't seem fair  to pay a premium  to work in                                                               
rural Alaska.                                                                                                                   
With respect to  selecting more women to the bench,  he said it's                                                               
better than  it used  to be  in terms  of getting  applicants and                                                               
names  sent to  the  governor. He  recalled  that he  distributed                                                               
information last year  on the Judicial Council's  work looking at                                                               
the percentage of women in the  bar, the percentage of women that                                                               
applied for  judgeships and the  percentage that applied  and had                                                               
their name forwarded,  "and it all does look  pretty good through                                                               
that  process." He  highlighted that  part  of the  focus of  the                                                               
bench and bar  program that Justice Dana Fabe helped  put on last                                                               
summer  was attracting  more women  to  the bench,  and that  the                                                               
Dillingham  superior  court  position  was filled  by  the  local                                                               
public  defender  who  is a  woman.  Ironically,  her  geographic                                                               
differential will  decrease from  $30,000 as a  DA to  $7,000 now                                                               
that she's a judge.                                                                                                             
SENATOR  MCGUIRE   expressed  appreciation  for   Justice  Fabe's                                                               
efforts and asked  for more outreach. She said  that she's spoken                                                               
to many  women who  would be excellent  judges, but,  in general,                                                               
they wait to be tapped.  There's a cultural difference, and women                                                               
don't seem to  be willing to put their name  forward to be judged                                                               
by their peers. She urged  more outreach and effort, particularly                                                               
in  Anchorage, because  victims of  domestic violence  and sexual                                                               
assault  who  believe  that  they  would  have  a  more  friendly                                                               
audience in  a courtroom  with a  female judge  do not  have that                                                               
opportunity  in   Alaska.  "Let's  beef  up   our  efforts,"  she                                                               
1:53:44 PM                                                                                                                    
SENATOR  PASKVAN asked  how much  the base  salary had  increased                                                               
since the  $40,000 was set in  statute, and how much  the average                                                               
wage in Alaska increased over that same time.                                                                                   
MR. WOOLIVER said he'd try to get the information.                                                                              
CHAIR FRENCH suggested he contact economist Neal Fried.                                                                         
SENATOR COGHILL asked how magistrates fit in the picture.                                                                       
MR. WOOLIVER  replied they're  in the  PERS system  and therefore                                                               
get the full  geographic differential on their  full salary. It's                                                               
only appointed judges who do not.                                                                                               
SENATOR  COGHILL  asked  what  the   starting  salary  is  for  a                                                               
MR.  WOOLIVER  replied he  would  follow  up and  provide  salary                                                               
information for the four levels of magistrates.                                                                                 
SENATOR COGHILL commented that any  sympathy he has is diminished                                                               
by his association with the  Office of Children's Services. These                                                               
are  range  15-18 employees  that  "literally  run themselves  to                                                               
death," yet  their salary with  the geo-diff barely gets  them to                                                               
that [$40,000] cutoff point.                                                                                                    
1:56:11 PM                                                                                                                    
CHAIR FRENCH responded the entire committee is feeling that.                                                                    
SENATOR  PASKVAN  asked  what  the   difference  is  between  the                                                               
retirement systems for a magistrate and a judge.                                                                                
MR. WOOLIVER replied magistrates are  part of the Public Employee                                                               
Retirement  System  (PERS) and  are  Tier  I-III defined  benefit                                                               
retirement employees  or Tier IV defined  contribution retirement                                                               
employees.  Judges are  part of  the  Judicial Retirement  System                                                               
(JRS)  and receive  a  pension  that is  calculated  on years  of                                                               
service  up to  a  maximum of  75 percent  of  a sitting  judge's                                                               
CHAIR FRENCH  commented that a friend  is a retired judge  and he                                                               
smiles broadly when he discusses his retirement.                                                                                
SENATOR COGHILL  said he  understands that  judges can  be called                                                               
out  of  retirement  to  take  caseloads. He  asked  if  that  is                                                               
MR. WOOLIVER responded it's discretionary  on both sides. A judge                                                               
may  remain eligible  to  serve pro  tem and  the  court has  the                                                               
discretion  to  select the  retired  judge.  Many retired  judges                                                               
continue to serve  part time and the court system  relies on them                                                               
SENATOR COGHILL  said he  has great respect  for the  judges that                                                               
serve pro tem and he loses respect for those who decline.                                                                       
CHAIR FRENCH asked if a  pro tem judge receives retirement salary                                                               
plus pro tem compensation.                                                                                                      
MR. WOOLIVER  estimated that  pro tem  judges receive  about $500                                                               
per day.  If they are also  drawing retirement, and not  all are,                                                               
the combined pro  tem and retirement pay cannot  exceed a sitting                                                               
judge's salary.                                                                                                                 
SENATOR PASKVAN conveyed  condolences to the family  of the Sitka                                                               
magistrate  who   recently  lost  his  life   in  an  unfortunate                                                               
CHAIR FRENCH said it  was a very sad story and  noted that he was                                                               
a  training  magistrate who  was  looked  to for  leadership  and                                                               
2:00:02 PM                                                                                                                    
CHAIR  FRENCH  announced  he  would  hold  SB  168  in  committee                                                               
awaiting follow-up information.                                                                                                 

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