AKLEG Recap, Week 7: Legislators reach the halfway mark of the 90-day session

Something might be going on in there.The Alaska State Capitol building as photographed in 2010. (Photo by Kimberly Vardeman/Creative Commons)

Legislators passed the halfway mark of the 90-day session last week, having approved just three bills to send to the governor’s desk. Work is continuing on bringing the operating budget together, plenty of bills are working their way through and the Iditarod is underway!

42 days remain.

Ferry funding

The House fast-track supplemental budget, which includes funding for the Alaska Marine Highway System to continue operating past April, didn’t make it to the House floor as was expected last week. The House Majority Coalition is short of a 21 member majority currently because Rep. Ivy Spohnholz is out with health issues and Tiffany Zulkosky isn’t expected to be sworn in until March 9.

The fast-track budget bill has the support of the Senate Majority–the legislation was negotiated between each chamber’s finance committee co-chairs–so it should clear the Senate relatively quickly. If it doesn’t, the state’s ferry system would have to shut down for the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends June 30.

Operating budget testimony

The House Finance Committee got off to a slow start with public testimony on the operating budget last week, but it picked up for Juneau. Now, the committee will set out to wrap up the budget this week with another round of committee amendments before sending the bill to the floor.

One of the big issues that emerged late last week was the funding of public defenders. Currently the budget is expected to increase the number of prosecutors and law enforcement officials in Alaska, but leaves the Public Defender Agency without a matching increase. With an expected increase in cases, the public defenders won’t have enough time in the day to ethically handle all the cases.

Underfunding the agency could slow down cases, lead to waiting times (meaning more time in jail) for people unable to hire private representation and force public defenders to try to reject to certain cases. It could cause a substantial constitutional crisis, but it’s likely to be fixed through an amendment. The public defenders need about $1 million to cover the increases this year.

No caucus

The Juneau Empire points out that Sen. Mike Shower has not yet committed to joining the Senate Majority. Shower was sworn in last week to fill the remainder of the term vacated by former Sen. Mike Dunleavy, who quit the position to pursue the Republican nomination for governor. The Mat-Su delegation is currently split on caucus membership. Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla, is in the majority while Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, is on her own after voting against the budget and its cuts to the PFD last year. Dunleavy had also left the majority caucus before ultimately departing.

Hughes’ departure already put the Senate Majority a vote short of the 15-member mark needed to tap the constitutional budget reserve. Shower not joining would just further complicate the issue. Though last week Shower did vote against a motion to advance Sen. Bill Wielechowski’s proposed constitutional amendment to enshrine the PFD from the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Abortion hearings

Sen. Cathy Giessel’s Senate Bill 124, which requires doctors to deliver viable fetuses when considering an abortion so they can be put up for adoption, has two hearings this week, which is twice as many hearings as it got in the Senate Health and Social Services Committee. It’ll be up in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by abortion opponent Sen. John Coghill, at 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday and Friday. The bill was stiffly opposed by both anti-abortion and pro-abortion groups during its only hearing in the Senate Health and Social Services Committee.

The Force is strong with this one

Alaska Supreme Court Justice Craig Stowers had one major ask of legislators during his State of the Judiciary Address earlier this year: Create an additional Superior Court judge position in Juneau (and remove a district court judge so the change won’t have any cost to the state). The Legislature listened, and House Bill 298 is already up on the Senate floor today.

Anchorage Caucus

Anchorage-area legislators returned home this weekend for the start of the Iditarod and to hold Anchorage Caucus, an annual town hall meeting to meet with constituents. Alaska Landmine’s Jeff Landfield was there and it sounds like quite a few legislators were no-shows for the meeting. He’ll have a larger report on the meeting soon.

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