Despite last-minute efforts to reach agreement on the operating budget and the crime bill, the Legislature couldn’t get it done by the time the 121-day session expired at midnight and, as expected, Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy called legislators back immediately for a special session in Juneau.
Dunleavy signaled his intentions at a 5:30 p.m. news conference on Wednesday, telling reporters “It looks like the Legislature is on course not to finish business.”
The governor said he was considering a special session in the Mat-Su Borough but that would take time—and money—for legislators to relocate so quickly.
The special session call includes the following items:
- House Bill 39, the operating budget
- House Bill 40, the mental health budget
- Senate Bill 19, the capital budget
- House Bill 49, the criminal justice rollback
- An appropriation bill dealing with FY 20’s education funding
The Legislature also doesn’t have a duty to listen to the governor on any of these items. It can complete all, none or some and gavel out whenever it decides. The governor, of course, could just call them back in for another round.
Efforts to reach agreement on the crime bill, House Bill 49, seemed to dominate the day Wednesday and there was talk they were close. The legislation was sent to a conference committee after the Senate passed a far-reaching overhaul of what the House had approved a week before, sparking claims that the governor had played the House.
The governor on Wednesday denied that anything was intentional but admitted miscommunications may have occurred on the bill.
The Senate gaveled out of its session without a mention of the remaining work, but House Speaker Bryce Edgmon gave an update on the House floor before it also gaveled out.
“A little bit of a change of plans, the hope was to be able to provide the granting of limited free powers,” he told the floor. “The plan is now to do that tomorrow.”
The limited free powers would give the committee greater latitude to change the bill on specific points of contention. The conference committee is set to meet at 11 a.m., an hour following the start of the 10 a.m. special session.
The operating budget is also likely close to resolution. It is also in conference committee with many of the major items resolved.
The Legislature had appeared ready to separate the issue of the size of the permanent fund dividend from the legislation in order to send the operating budget to the governor sooner than later. The governor had also separated out the two items in his budget proposals but said that he would prefer them to be lumped together now.
It’s unclear whether legislators would follow that direction.
Without a fully funded budget on its way to the governor by the end of the session, legislators will be barred from collecting per diem payments until the day after a budget is sent to the governor.
Non-Juneau legislators are eligible for $302 in per diem payments a day. Each day legislators don’t pass a budget the state will save $17,214 on per diem (though not all legislators collect per diem during special sessions).
What’ll take time
The dividend is the big remaining item and there’s really no clear path forward for the Legislature.
The Senate version of the operating budget contains a $3,000 dividend while the House contains no dividend, as it had planned to take it up separately. The conference committee could set a dividend in the operating budget, but that would dramatically delay the operating budget.
According to a KTUU report on Tuesday, Senate President Cathy “Giessel said the majority caucus has 11 votes for a dividend amount but not on a specific figure.”
The special session is limited in what the Legislature can bring up. It can’t bring up bills that the governor didn’t put on the call, so the likely vehicle for a dividend if it’s not going to appear in the operating budget would be the capital budget.
That legislation is still in the House and could be freely amended before sending it to the governor.
What’s not going to happen
The governor is keeping alive his battle over the constitutionality of forward funding education. He argues that the Legislature violated the constitution when it approved funding for the upcoming fiscal year in last year’s budget. The move also put this year’s education funding out of reach of a veto.
The argument sprung up when the governor was escalating talk about vetoes, but he’s since pledged not to veto education funding if the Legislature puts it back in the budget where it would be available for veto.
Dunleavy doubled down on the fight on Wednesday, saying he had a feeling that a lawsuit would be filed against the money but said it wouldn’t likely come from the administration.
The Legislature has not been interested in even entertaining the governor’s demands on this issue, arguing that they’re well within the bounds of the constitution on this issue. The fight is not just about education funding, but serves as a flash point for the governor’s efforts to box in and limit the Legislature’s powers.
The governor has attempted this in multiple avenues this session, but most notably with proposed constitutional amendments that would set a strict spending limit and also require all new taxes passed by the Legislature to be put to a public vote. Those amendments did not make it onto the special session agenda, which is just as well as the Legislature has not be been eager to surrender its power.
He also said the education funding is different from his proposal to forward fund multiple years of PFD repayment checks because his proposal specifically identifies funding in the form of unstructured draws out of the Alaska Permanent Fund’s Earnings Reserve Account.
When asked if the public should be concerned about unplanned draws out of the earnings reserve account, an issue many legislators are worried could deplete the account if Alaska hits bad market conditions, Dunleavy said no, not when it comes to paying a PFD.