The third time’s the charm.
With the help of a handful of minority Republicans, the House has finally reached the high threshold to properly fund the state’s capital budget and restore dozens of program-specific funds that had been liquidated because the House failed to muster the votes earlier in the session.
The vote to tap into the state’s Constitutional Budget Reserve, which needed 30 votes, had failed on the passage of the original capital budget and failed two times on the passage of a fixer capital budget added to the special session agenda. Today was the last opportunity to approve the CBR portions of the bill. It passed 31-7.
With the full House Majority and the caucus-less Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux voting in favor of the motion, a group of seven minority Republicans changed their vote after originally helping defeat the draw from the Constitutional Budget Reserve. Those members include: Reps. Kelly Merrick, Lance Pruitt, Sara Rasmussen, Josh Revak, Dave Talerico and DeLena Johnson. Rep. Laddie Shaw was absent for the original CBR vote but cast a vote in favor of today’s motion.
Rep. Talerico, the Healy Republican who was originally set to be the House Speaker before the Republicans fractured in light of Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s budget, was one of today’s key votes after returning from an excused absence for a medical reason.
During his floor speech, he said his experience with his health issue informed his decision today. One of the programs affected by the governor’s expanded liquidation of program-specific funds included the funds for the state’s WWAMI medical program that allows Alaska students to more easily pursue medical degrees offered by other states in the Pacific Northwest.
“Last week, as I was looking for some relief from a physician, several comments were made that they don’t have the ability to take on any new patients at this point in time,” he said. “Through one of the services to actually make an appointment, it was suggested that the best option would be to go to an emergency room and just be treated for pain until you had the ability to eventually get in. That’s not the fault of the physicians at all, but it’s apparent to me that we have a shortage at this point.”
He ultimately said that it was an outpouring of input from his constituents who wanted the Legislature to move on from the issue that guided his vote.
The reverse sweep
The WWAMI program, along with the state’s college scholarship program, was set to be funded out of the Higher Education Investment Fund, but that fund was targeted by Dunleavy to be included in the annual sweep of funds into the Constitutional Budget Reserve. Legislators argued that the governor’s actions to target the fund went far beyond precedent but barring a lawsuit, the Legislature’s only option to force the change was to muster the 30 votes to reverse it.
The passage of the reverse sweep will send dozens of funds back into place, including the funds for the Power Cost Equalization program that helps Alaskans cope with high energy prices—without it the community of Noorvik, where Dunleavy celebrated his inauguration, would be expected to see annual energy bills increase by $2,000—and another that funds the state’s vaccination program. The state’s scholarship program had been put on hold because its funds were liquidated by the governor so barring a veto, the scholarship program and other should resume.
The reverse sweep language could still be vetoed by Dunleavy, but it would be an all-or-nothing veto. Dunleavy couldn’t pick and choose which funds would be restored and which ones wouldn’t. Still, the reverse sweep language has accumulated a grand total of 50 votes in favor (31 in the House and 19 in the Senate) on its route to passage, which is five more than the votes needed to override a veto.
The administration has argued against having these dedicated funds and suggested that, instead, the Legislature simply pass the roughly $115 million in shortfalls out of the state’s general fund. It was an argument that had traction from some minority Republicans on Monday, but it’s a faulty premise.
As other legislators have pointed out, the general fund would only have about $15 million in it after all the state’s other obligations. It would leave the governor in a position to decide what does and doesn’t get funded.
Federal transportation bucks
Also at play was nearly $1 billion in federal highway dollars the state had yet to secure by putting up the necessary state match. The budget includes the $73 million needed to secure that money, which is drawn out of the CBR.
Some minority members like Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, argued against the rush to pass the bill, arguing that U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan had given the state permission to take its time to approve the funding. Originally, the state had warned that a failure to fund the match before the end of July could mean the state would miss out on the money altogether.
Supporters of the budget said just because the federal highway dollars could be secured at a later date doesn’t mean they should.
House Majority Leader Rep. Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks, said it’s important for the state and contractors to begin to plan for next year’s projects this winter. He said punting on the funding could put as many as 15,000 construction jobs at stake next year.
“We’re talking about people’s livelihoods and ability to stay in Alaska,” he said.
The PFD was not included in the budget and was not generally mentioned throughout Monday’s debate. Opponents to the passage of the capital budget, which includes legislators who are holding out for a $3,000 PFD, continually mentioned efforts to negotiate and compromise on the budget as reason to hold out against today’s vote.
Wilson said she was hopeful that all the issues at hand—the restoration of vetoes, the PFD and the capital budget—could have been taken together in one massive piece of legislation.
Rep. Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage, opposed any delay on the budget. He said it’s more important to focus on the immediate and broadly popular things contained in the capital budget and save the contentious fight over the PFD for separate legislation that’s currently working its way through Juneau.
“We’re putting Alaskans first. We’re not putting a PFD amount first. We’re not letting the state burn on the amount of a dividend,” he said. “We’re saying the people come first. We’re going to bring stability and sanity to this state and we’re going to pass this budget.”
The Senate is scheduled to take up the PFD today as part of its deliberation on the House’s bill that would restore about three-quarters of the governor’s vetoes. Currently, that bill contains a $3,000 PFD that would cost the state nearly $1.9 billion but there will be efforts to reduce that number to about $1,600 in order to align it with the House’s actions so far.