Five weeks of session are in the books. Here’s what’s happened and what to look forward to.
Just 56 days (plus inevitable overtime) to go.
Legislators always start the session with rosy hopes and promises of being done in 90 days, and there always comes a time where those hopes and promises run into reality. Week 5 of the session appears to be that week. Battles between the House and Senate over the budget, and particularly over the dividend, appear to be coming into sharp focus and there doesn’t seem to be much that either side really, truly agree to. They agree that education should be funded early, but disagree on the funding and the process. They agree that the earnings of the Alaska Permanent Fund should be used for the budget, but disagree on whether it should be the only solution to the budget. The Senate’s also winding up for cuts to Medicaid and other social services, while the governor and House hope to restore some deeply cut services.
There were other moments from last week that would suggest that things aren’t coming along quickly enough to finish everything by day 90.
After the Senate Majority doubled down on its no-taxes (PFD-cutting) approach to the budget, House Majority Leader Bryce Edgmon said that he’s “pretty discouraged” about getting done on time. The House, it seems, won’t be eager to sign off on forever reducing the dividend if a broad-based tax isn’t part of the equation.
House minority Republicans remained optimistic about being done before 90 days, suggesting during their weekly news conference that it’s just a matter of coming prepared to be done by the deadline.
“I can want to run a four-minute mile all I want, but I’m not going to be able to do it,” Juneau Empire reporter James Brooks fired back. “Some things take more time, I would suggest.”
And that’s not to mention the nasty battle between Gov. Bill Walker and Republicans over the vacant Senate seat that culminated with the live grenade that was Walker’s appointment of Tom Braund to the seat, which resulted in his withdrawal from consideration less than 24 hours later. Now Walker has additional names to consider for appointment: Vicki Wallner, Right to Life executive director Christopher Kurka, Mike Shower and Doyle Holmes.
PFD takes center stage
Expect politics surrounding the permanent fund dividend to become increasingly prominent in the coming weeks. All sides seem to generally agree that the earnings from the Permanent Fund should be part of the solution to the state’s deficit, which would cut the PFD, but there’s a greater argument beginning to take shape over whether that should be the only solution.
The Senate Republican majority has staked out the position that cutting the PFD to free up permanent fund earnings to pay for government is the only thing that’s needed because oil prices are rebounding. Senate Majority Leader Peter Micciche said at last week’s news conference that they were sure glad they didn’t institute an income tax because there would be excess revenues.
The House, which also agrees in cutting the PFD to help free up permanent fund earnings, seemed to strike on a new talking point during its weekly news conference, arguing that diversifying income through something like an income tax is a route to protecting the dividend. That’s because, as the House Majority Coalition would frame it, the Senate will be gunning for the rest of the dividend if the budget goes south. At the same news conference, Seaton accused some unnamed members of the Senate majority of planning to continue to cut the dividend down to zero before being forced to implement some sort of income tax. There, Seaton also suggested that an in-law structured draw on the permanent fund isn’t necessarily required and it certainly seems like the House will be reluctant to sign off on one as long as a PFD cut is balanced with a tax.
No more personal bills
Today’s day 35 of the session, which under uniform rule 44 is the final day for legislators to introduce personal bills or resolutions (like one naming pornography a public health crisis). Standing committees can still introduce bills and resolutions after today.
The Senate majority has acted as if the education budget passed by the House is an utterly broken piece of legislation, holding a news conference to explain why the Senate might not be up to the task of fixing it. Still, the Senate Finance Committee has scheduled a hearing on it, along with Sen. Gary Stevens’ Senate Bill 121 to make early budgeting the norm in future years, for Friday. Perhaps the Senate has figured out how the amendment process works, and they’ll be exploring a way to insert a funding source in the bill. But given the track record of the committee so far, we’re not expecting much more than a hearing designed to land a few punches.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, hot off the failure to pass a bipartisan immigration deal, will be speaking to the Alaska Legislature in a joint session on Thursday at 11 a.m. Murkowski will still have plenty of good things to talk about, bringing home a handful of wins that include the King Cove road and the 1002 area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. As always, legislator questions ought to be interesting.
Budget coming together
Regardless of the high-level rhetoric and gamesmanship taking shape over the budget and its funding sources, the House Finance subcommittees are wrapping up their work on pieces of the budget this week. Clouse-outs will start Tuesday with the Department of Fish and Game budget with a flurry through the rest of the week.
As if the session doesn’t feel long enough, there’s also the confirmation of Gov. Bill Walker’s appointments to look forward to. The process culminates with an hours-long joint floor session where long-standing grudges and geographic beefs are hashed out through fish board votes, but that’s for the final weeks of the session. This week, committees are starting their hearings on appointees. The two big names on the agenda for this week are Department of Administration Commissioner Leslie Ridle in the House State Affairs Committee on Tuesday and Department of Commerce Commissioner Mike Navarre in the Senate Community and Regional Affairs Committee also on Tuesday.