With the Senate’s passage of the operating budget on Wednesday, it means the Legislature’s hectic and hard-to-track final weeks will soon be upon us.
The Legislature’s official to-do list is really limited to passing a fully funded budget and settling on a dividend, but with pressure from Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy there will also be efforts to address crime legislation and his slate of constitutional amendments.
Here’s what to know.
Conference committee on the budget
The operating budget will be headed to the conference committee once the House votes to reject the changes made by the Senate and the Senate votes to stand by its changes. The six-member committee will be made up of three members from each chamber: typically, the majority co-chairs of each chamber’s finance committee and a minority member from each chamber.
The committee will be tasked with hashing out the differences in the budget but is limited in what it can negotiate over. The group can only touch the differences between the two budgets, picking the high number, the low number or something between the two.
Big items to look forward to are funding for ferries, cuts to Medicaid and, of course, the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend. The House passed a budget with no dividend and the Senate passed a budget with a $3,000 dividend, indicating along the way that it was largely for negotiating purposes. Where will the dividend land? Somewhere between $0 and $3,000.
The committee will typically work through a few non-controversial differences in the early days, saving big line items like the number for the University of Alaska for the final closeout. These kinds of meetings are typically speedy as much of the negotiations are occurring behind closed doors and in caucuses to ensure there’s support for the compromises.
Minority members can and will offer objections throughout this process, but it’s not likely to amount to much.
Once the final report is completed, it will be sent back to each chamber for approval. Under the Legislature’s uniform rules, the chambers cannot vote on the bill for 24 hours. This is supposed to give time for members to review the compromise.
If the compromise is approved, then it will be off to the governor, who holds a line item veto power over the budget. He’s able to eliminate or reduce any item in the budget but cannot add in new spending.
If the conference committee report fails in the chambers, the budget can be sent to a free conference that would give them greater latitude to rewrite the budget. This is a process more typically used for legislation and not the budget.
The 24-hour rule
Once the operating budget reaches the conference committee, it also triggers what’s known as the 24-hour rule where the Legislature loosens its public notice procedures. Typically, a week’s meetings must be released on the proceeding Thursday afternoon.
Under the 24-hour rule, committees can post a meeting with as little as 24 hours’ notice. Well, that would be the case in a world where “24 hours” means “24 hours.” It’s much more often interpreted as the day ahead, so we’ll frequently see afternoon postings for meetings the following morning.
Bills previously heard
The 24-hour rule isn’t the only thing that makes tracking the final days of session tricky.
Committees can also bring up bills under a catch-all term “Bills Previously Heard/Scheduled” put on most meeting agendas. It means pretty much what it says: a committee can opt to bring up whatever bills that have been previously heard or scheduled to be heard by the committee.
The Senate Finance Committee already took advantage of this earlier this week, when it brought up and advanced the 50-50 PFD/state funding split in Senate Bill 103 and rolled out a new version of its statutory spending limit in Senate Bill 104.
Typically, committee chairs can be expected to give a loose layout of the agenda at the start of a committee as well as an overview of what’s ahead at the end of the meeting, but it’s not perfect.
Today is Day 108, meaning the Legislature has two weeks before it hits the constitutionally mandated 121-day legislative session. While the Legislature has easily ignored the voter-approved 90-day session and has played relatively loose with the 121-day deadline, too, legislators will face real consequences for the first time ever if they haven’t sent an operating budget to the governor.
That’s thanks to changes in last year’s House Bill 44, the one that also contained the ethics rules legislators found irksome. If the Legislature doesn’t approve a fully funded operating budget by the end of the 121-day session they will no longer be able to collect per diem.
Crime bills and constitutional amendments
The Legislature’s only constitutionally required duty is to pass a budget, but Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy has also threatened a special session if his slate of crime bills and constitutional amendments don’t get passed.
The Legislature seems, honestly, pretty unlikely to sign off on any constitutional amendment this session, particularly when an amendment wouldn’t be on the ballot until 2020. Though the amendments have faced especially deep skepticism in the House, there’s plenty of opponents to the constitutional changes in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Constitutional amendments also require a high bar to get out of each chamber of the Legislature. It’s a two-thirds vote, meaning 27 in the House and 14 in the Senate.
Legislators in both chambers appear more intent on doing something to address crime this session, but it’s still uncertain to what degree they’re willing to act. Dunleavy has called for a far-reaching repeal of the 2016 criminal justice law Senate Bill 91 with a costly return to pre-Senate Bill 91 sentencing levels that would put more people behind bars for longer.
Even a more moderated version of the rollback considered in the House has a hefty price tag.
It’s still unclear how much of a stomach legislators will have for these associated costs. There are also questions about the efficacy of tougher sentences on overall crime rates.
While Dunleavy has complained that his slate of bills isn’t progressing, both chambers have legislation in place that would make it easy to roll together multiple crime bills into one larger omnibus.
It’s all but certain that legislation closing loopholes in Alaska’s sex crimes will reach the desk to deal with loopholes raised by the Justin Schneider case. It’s a question of what else will come with it.