AKLEG Recap, Day 79: Senate panel approves $5 million increase for University of Alaska

Hooding Ceremony at Wendy Williamson Saturday, May 4, 2013. (Photo by Erin Hooley/University of Alaska Anchorage Office of Advancement/Creative Commons)

Plenty of behind-the-scene feuds and simmering tension is coming to a head as we enter the final stretch of the session, and Day 79 seemed to be a marquee day on that front. Here’s what happened and what to look forward to.

Just 11 days left in the regular session (and three nights ’til Wrestlemania!).

Senate approves funding increase for UA

The single biggest increase to the House version of the operating budget is a $19 million increase to the University of Alaska budget (the Legislature only gets say in the overall UA budget line, not specific appropriations within the system). It came up about $5 million short of the request made by the UA Board of Regents, but marked a significant increase to take the sting off more than $50 million cuts (a roughly 14 percent cut) since 2015.

The Senate subcommittee on the University of Alaska also–somewhat surprisingly–approved an increase, albeit a much smaller $5 million increase over the governor’s status quo proposal during closeout on Wednesday morning. What’s interesting is that both Sens. Bert Stedman and Anna MacKinnon didn’t seem particularly thrilled with the increase.

Stedman said he would have liked to see flat funding or even potentially a cut to give the Senate more flexibility to negotiate with the House over the funding level. He said the state’s financial situation is still in trouble and worried about increased funding.

“I think it’s a little early to put the throttle back down,” he said. “There’s an apparent disconnect between our fiscal position and the requests coming at us.”

MacKinnon was also particularly bothered by the spending, setting her sights on the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ new engineering building (the one that the Legislature funded half of in 2012 before abandoning the project altogether, leaving it to the University of Alaska to bond for itself) and its associated operating costs.

“We did not have the money and we do not have the money to increase the budget for this building,” she said. “They went ahead and built it, so it’s my belief that the university should be absorbing the costs. … Again, the state told the university up front that the we would not have the money to be able to support those increased recurring costs. It’s stressing public safety and other areas of the state.”

Again, the Legislature funded new engineering buildings for both the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the University of Alaska Anchorage in 2012 before abandoning the funding to complete the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ building (the Legislature did come through for UAA, which managed opened its building years before UAF did). The university ended up bonding for the building’s completion after years of costly stops and starts that left it an Anchorage-LIO-esque skeleton for years.

Subcommittee chair Sen. Natasha von Imhof, R-Anchorage, defended the increase as a needed investment in Arctic research and economic development. She also gave some credit to the university administration for taking forward-thinking steps to modernize the university system amid the cuts.

They ultimately supported the increase with only Minority Leader Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, casting a vote against because she said the boost was too small.

No rest for the House

The House is back with its monster floor calendar today, having knocked off four of the 11 items that were scheduled yesterday. Passed legislation includes: House Bill 323, extend the Board of Pharmacy; House Bill 342, land sale practices; House Joint Resolution 33, develop Arctic infrastructure and defense; Senate Concurrent Resolution 15, March 27, 2018 Alaska Education and Sharing Day.

Every one of those pieces of legislation passed 40-0 (at least eventually on reconsideration).

Today’s calendar adds four more bills to the agenda: House Bill 41, joint prime sponsorship of bills; House Bill 350, automated teller machines fees; House Bill 355, fire, forest land, crimes and fire prevention; House Bill 374, on-bill financing of energy improvements.

The House is back today at 10 a.m.

Chair rolled

The Senate Judiciary Committee was hearing Senate Bill 150 during its Wednesday committee meeting. The bill deals with an update to the pretrial risk assessment tool that hit snags just about as soon as it became law. Gov. Bill Walker’s bill aims to make some updates to the system, but that also reopens up the bitter fight over crime and the criminal justice reform Coghill’s helped support. That came to play with an amendment by Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, that removed pretrial release for some offenders, giving discretion back to the judges.

Here’s how it played out.

After getting rolled on amendment on a key priority, the normally placid Coghill abruptly ended the meeting and walked out with Senate President Pete Kelly. It sounds like there’s a lot more than just a chair getting rolled on a key priority position, but this isn’t the place for unsubstantiated rumors and gossip. Stay tuned.

Confirmation hearings

The House and Senate will meet in a joint session next Tuesday for the annual slog through confirmation votes.

The biggest fight that’s taking shape is likely over Kenni Linden’s appointment to the public position on the Board of Certified Direct-Entry Midwives. Forget that she’s had her children delivered via midwife and was suggested to the position by her midwife, anti-abortion conservatives are lining up to oppose her because she once worked for Planned Parenthood. The Legislature has a pretty dismal record when it comes to appointing people opposed by social conservatives.

Just how many parents?

During a House floor debate on House Bill 38, which deals with workers’ compensation and death benefits, there was a fair bit of debate over an amendment that would evenly divide a $70,000 payout among surviving parents (if other beneficiaries aren’t available) however many there are. The original bill envisioned just one or two surviving parents.

The amendment was somehow controversial, with at one point Rep. Dan Saddler saying “It’s a Brave New World” and there are no longer any limits on parents before going on to suggest that someone might have more than a dozen parents.

The comment struck many as puzzling. So puzzling that #akleg twitterer Will Muldoon had to dive into the numbers.

Ultimately the amendment passed 24-15 with the following minority House Republicans voting against the amendment: Birch, Chenault, Eastman, Johnson, Johnston, Millett, Neuman, Pruitt, Rauscher, Reinbold, Saddler, Sullivan-Leonard, Talerico, Tilton, Wilson.

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