Day 49 is in the bag. The flu has hit the Legislature in full force, House Finance amendments to the operating budget are underway and the race is underway in the Iditarod.
Just 41 days remain.
‘Get well Ivy’
Rep. Ivy Spohnholz is recovering from complications of a blood clot in Anchorage and is expected to return to the Legislature next week. There’s been a lot of talk about her condition after missing much of last week, and there were some rumors circulating on Monday. That’s likely why House Speaker Bryce Edgmon called an impromptu news conference before the Monday floor session. There he gave an update on illnesses affecting session, noting that Reps. John Lincoln and Dan Ortiz were also out with the flu. He didn’t go into much detail about Spohnholz’s condition, but said he wanted to give her enough time to fully recover before returning to Juneau.
Spohnholz took to Twitter about an hour later to talk about what’s going on and thank people for their well wishes.
Thanks to those who have reached out to me over these past several days. I am recovering from complications from pulmonary embolism. I am home recuperating with family. I plan to return to Juneau next Monday. I am monitoring #akleg this week, and my staff are hard at work.
— Ivy Spohnholz (@IvySpohnholz) March 5, 2018
Credit to both Spohnholz and her staff, who’ve kept things running during what’s certainly a tough time. Her bills, as well as a Monday lunch and learn on behavioral health treatment (hosted instead by Sen. Cathy Giessel), are still moving ahead.
Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, used the special order on the House floor to send the Legislature’s well wishes.
“Get well Ivy,” she said.
House Finance begins amendments
Speaking of the flu, there were plenty of raspy voices in the House Finance Committee on Monday when the committee began work on the more than 70 amendments offered by committee members after public testimony.Here’s a rundown of the amendments that were accepted
- $1.034 million increase for the Public Defender Agency (offered by Rep. Jason Grenn) to fund four additional attorneys to meet an anticipated increase in cases. Without the funding, the Public Defender Agency has had dire warnings that overworked public defenders would need to begin declining cases.
- Added language that would hold school districts’ state funding harmless for consolidating schools. The current law would hit districts with a budget cut the same year they consolidate schools, effectively discouraging districts from doing such actions. The change (offered by Rep. Paul Seaton) would guarantee districts the same funding for the year the consolidation occurs and is offset by a reduction in the K-12 foundation formula. It’s mainly targeted at making life easier for Anchorage.
- $465,000 to hire four additional Guardian ad Litems to the Office of Public Advocacy (offered by Rep. Les Gara). Guardian ad Litems are responsible for representing children during legal proceedings on a range of cases from emancipation to domestic violence and juvenile court. Like the public defenders, the Guardian ad Litems are overworked. The amendments adds positions to Anchorage, Fairbanks, Palmer, and Juneau utilizing existing office space and existing support staff.
- An amendment that would set the Marijuana Control Board on a path to finally pay for itself and recoup about $4.6 million of UGF the Legislature spent to get the board’s regulations up and running (offered by Rep. Paul Seaton). Once that $4.6 million is returned to the general fund, the board would have more flexibility in setting its fees and rates.
- Intent language that would direct the Regulatory Commission of Alaska to produce a map of broadband coverage in Alaska (offered by Rep. David Guttenberg). This follows up on previous efforts by Guttenberg to get a better understanding of the state’s connectivity.
A majority of those amendments came from Rep. Tammie Wilson and would have cut this year’s budget to what was spent last year. At least that was the explanation. The problem, as explained by Office of Management and Budget Director is that Wilson was essentially looking at the wrong number for what was spent. What was offered as amendments to bring funding in line with spending really just amounted to big cuts, she said.
“Without a holistic view of all expenditures and revenue sources within an allocation,” explained a budget document explaining the problem, “amendments of this nature are likely to have significant unintended consequences.”
A few amendments by Rep. Lance Pruitt seemed to have some traction beyond the minority Republicans. Amendments that would have eliminated funding for the state’s dairy program, which are used by one dairy without fees, and another that would have eliminated the Ocean Ranger Program both garnered votes from Rep. Jason Grenn, I-Anchorage, but ultimately still came up short at 5Y-5N or 6N-5Y.
Shower goes without a caucus
Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, joins fellow Mat-Su Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, as part of the no-caucus club. He made the announcement yesterday, a week after being sworn into the Senate. He said he simply can’t commit to voting for an increased budget, which he blames on the House Majority Coalition and Gov. Bill Walker.
A government check
Perhaps Shower’s decision has something to do with the Senate Majority’s attitude towards the permanent fund dividend. When asked about the vote against skipping Sen. Bill Wielechowski’s proposed dividend-in-the-constitution resolution out of committee, Senate President Pete Kelly had this to say during Monday’s press conference.
“Strangely enough, we are getting information from different districts that favor that, but right now that’s purely a chairman’s priority to bring that up or not,” he said. “It isn’t as if we haven’t discussed it among ourselves. But I think one of the biggest roadblocks it has is it enshrines a government check in the constitution. That is problematic from a number standpoints, but for anyone who has studied history that certainly wasn’t the idea of the founding fathers that we would ever make payments and that would be a constitutional right.”
Despite all the absences, the Legislature still passed a handful of bills on Monday. The House approved a bunch of non-controversial extensions of boards and commissions along with Rep. Steve Thompson’s House Bill 96 that repeals a handful of indirect expenditures. Chief among them is a $50 tax discount that tobacco sellers can get for affixing tax stamps themselves.
The House held over the fast-track supplemental budget, Rep. Chris Tuck’s House Bill 142 on unemployment compensation benefits and House Bill 79 on workers’ compensation for Wednesday.
House Bill 298, which creates an additional Superior Court judge in Juneau by removing a district court judge, unanimously passed the Senate and is ready to head to the governor’s desk. The bill is the one big ask from Alaska Supreme Court Justice Craig Stowers. The Senate also approved Sen. Anna MacKinnon’s comprehensive health insurance fund bill, Senate Bill 165, unanimously.
What we’re reading/listening to
- The folks over at Alaska Public Media are doing an excellent job with their Iditarod podcast, Iditapod. It’s a great way to really dive into the race. Find it on your favorite podcasting apps, or over at https://www.alaskapublic.org/iditapod/.
- Speaking of the Iditarod, did you know that the race is facing a ton of questions about its future? You did? Oh, it’s been in the news for months? Ok, well, here’s an interesting story about what the mushers would do to fix the race. Read: Mushers say the Iditarod can be saved. Here’s how. by Anchorage Daily News.