After two years of deeply divided, unproductive and bitter legislating, the Alaska Legislature found its stride in the last week to bring a largely productive and smooth finish to the session.
The 30th Alaska Legislature came to an end early Sunday morning, when both chambers adjourned around 2 a.m. after passing a fully funded operating budget the earliest since Gov. Bill Walker took office (the 2015 operating budget was passed earlier, but full funding wasn’t passed until mid June). The Legislature also produced a meaty capital budget and passed plenty of landmark legislation.
Here’s a roundup of some of the most important changes and what they’ll mean for you.
Editor’s note: This post brings an end to the AKLEG Recap posts we’ve been doing throughout session (unless, of course, there’s a special session). There will still be plenty to unpack from this session that we’ll be following up with over the next few weeks before we switch over more completely to the 2018 elections. It’s been fun, and thanks for reading along.
Fully funded operating budget passes
There were some last-minute concerns about the state of the three-quarter vote to tap the constitutional budget reserve to cover the budget gap not covered by oil revenue and the newly available earnings reserve account of the Alaska Permanent Fund. It may have required additional last-minute negotiations, which threatened to push the session beyond Saturday, but the legislative leadership did what it took and sealed up the three-quarter vote early Saturday evening.
This means the state and its employees will get to avoid what’s become the annual routine of worrying about government shutdowns and widespread layoffs.
The state will be funding this year’s budget–and all future budgets–with a mix of oil revenue and income from the Alaska Permanent Fund’s investments. The Legislature had planned on ad hoc draws from the permanent fund’s earnings reserve account, but ultimately settled on a set of rules to govern these withdrawals in Senate Bill 26. PFDs will be set at $1,600 for this year and left to a legislative decision in future years, too. Also unresolved will be whether or not additional revenue comes into the picture as an income tax or sales tax to cover future budget gaps. This year the Legislature tapped into its nearly depleted savings account to cover the gap.
Scaled back increases to the capital budget
The House Majority Coalition was going to be pushing for some pretty sizeable increases to the capital budget, at least according to a document carelessly left in a copier for Minority Republicans to find (that the document existed in the first place is baffling). The majority had, according to the memo, planned to fully fund the remainder of the current year’s Medicaid budget and send a grand total of $7 million over to the University of Alaska for deferred maintenance among many other increases among a dozen other changes.
The majority had to apparently scale back the requests after Rep. Lance Pruitt asked on Friday “Has this been predetermined?”
On Saturday night, the House Finance Committee rolled out an updated budget that included some but not all of the increases that had been outlined in the leaked memo and the Friday-night amendments. Those increases are still largely big wins for the progressive House Majority Coalition, but not nearly as much as its members would have hoped.
- $20 million one-time increase to the per-student funding formula for the upcoming school year. Schools will also be able to bank on early funding of the following year’s school budget and a $30 million one-time increase thanks to the conditional language in this year’s school funding bill that relied on the passage of the permanent fund restructure.
- $6 million for pre-kindergarten grants.
- $20 million for the reconstruction of the Port of Anchorage.
- $28 million for Medicaid services to cover this year’s budget. The House Majority Coalition had hoped to insert $48 million, which is the entirety of what’s expected to be owed by the end of the current fiscal year. Money was expected to run out early this week, meaning providers would have had to wait until July 1, the start of the next fiscal year, to get paid. This additional funding won’t avoid that altogether, but will push that out at least an extra month.
- $2 million for the University of Alaska’s deferred maintenance budget. The House Majority Coalition had hoped for $7 million.
- $12 million for substance use disorder treatment, down from $18 million.
- Numerous smaller projects detailed in the leaked memo, like a $200,000 grant for the Goldstream Valley Public Use Area, disappeared from the final version.
‘Minibus’ crime bill passes
Reps. Matt Claman and Chuck Kopp hoped to protect health care providers with their House Bill 312. The Senate had extra plans for the bill, adding in a plethora of other criminal justice changes that had been working their way through the system in response to backlash to criminal justice reform and recent increases in crime.
The biggest change, which was introduced by Sen. Mia Costello through a floor amendment, allows judges to set monetary bail in all cases regardless of an offender’s score in the pre-trial risk assessment tool. The tool had come under criticism because it tied the judge’s hands in deciding whether to keep people in jail or not while awaiting trial.
Other changes include an expansion of the pre-trial risk assessment tool to consider out-of-state convictions and an expansion of the power of the attorney general to rapidly respond to new boutique drugs like spice and synthetic marijuana.
With an election on the horizon, crime is set to be one of the biggest political issues this year and just about every faction of incumbent legislators and the governor can now say they’ve done something about it.
The Legislature signed off on Rep. Jason Grenn’s House Bill 44, which sets into place tougher conflict-of-interest rules, stricter limits on lobbyist and foreign election influence and a cut off for legislative per diem if a budget isn’t passed by the end of the 121 day session. It’s a pretty major overhaul of the Legislature’s rules around influence and compensation that largely mirrors what was proposed in the Government Accountability Act initiative that both Grenn and Midnight Sun Publisher Jim Lottsfeldt won.
Though it hasn’t been decided yet, the Legislature’s legal team believes the measure will knock the initiative off the general election ballot. That could be good news for some legislators who were concerned the initiative might draw extra attention to their voting records, per diem payments and lobbyist relationships. It also means the provisions won’t enjoy the two-year protection against repeal that voter initiatives have under the Alaska Constitution.
Bishop’s education raffle sneaks through
Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, came up with a novel way to raise money for K-12 schools: a raffle using the permanent fund dividend. Bishop’s Senate Bill 78 would have created a program where recipients of a PFD would be able to purchase raffle tickets with a large portion of the proceeds going to fund K-12 schools on top of what’s already made available through the state’s funding formula. The legislation ran into opposition from people concerned about gambling and nonprofits concerned that the raffle would eat into their Pick.Click.Give. donations.
It was set to die in the House Rules Committee until the Senate Rules Committee met Saturday afternoon in order to add it to House Bill 213, which deals with the public school trust fund.
The combined legislation passed the Senate 19-0 and the House 26-14.
Senate Bill 78 was one of just two Senate bills that were left stranded in the House Rules Committee (the final stop before the House floor). The other bill being Sen. John Coghill’s Senate Bill 93, which would have cleaned up the process for placing freezes on credit reports.
Cocktails come through
Bishop’s education raffle wasn’t the only legislation to sneak through at the last minute. The controversial fix for whether or not distilleries can serve cocktails in their tasting rooms was resolved through a House floor amendment to Senate Bill 45 (which deals with the licensing of contractors).
Rep. Adam Wool, D-Fairbanks, introduced the amendment, which is notable because had stood in the way of a standalone fix for the issue, drawing heaps of criticism because he also owns a bar that’s across the street from a distillery.
The issue snarled up a far-ranging update to the state’s alcohol laws in Sen. Peter Micciche’s Senate Bill 76. Micciche pulled the plug on his bill on Friday as time was running out and other changes that would have slashed the serving limits of breweries and distilleries was added in by the House.
Has the smoke-free workplaces bill, Senate Bill 63, passed the Legislature?
Thanks to #akleg for passing SB 63, & congrats to sponsor @SenatorMicciche. Ending smoking in workplaces & public areas gives Alaskans the freedom to breathe easy, so no one has to choose between their health and their livelihood. #saferalaska
— Governor Bill Walker (@AkGovBillWalker) May 13, 2018