AKLEG Day 98: Senate rolls out budget with full funding for school bond debt program

The Senate Finance Committee during a hearing on March 27, 2019. (Photo by Alaska Senate Majority/Flickr)

The biggest headlines of Day 98 was the state’s cancellation of the a portion of its controversial contract to privatize the Alaska Psychiatric Institute and the governor ratcheting up pressure on the Legislature to sign off on his crime legislation. But that’s not all that happened. We also saw the Senate roll out its operating budget, a compromise on the legislative ethics rules and the story of “Offender Joe.”

Here’s what happened on Day 98.

Senate budget

The Senate rolled out its version of the operating budget on Monday with a brief informational hearing with a deeper dive and amendments due later in the week. Most of the changes occurred in the subcommittees, so the topline takeaways from Monday’s roll out was the Senate’s decision to fully fund the school bond debt reimbursement program.

The program helps pay for a portion of the school bond debt payments owed by local municipalities for school construction. The portion that schools get paid depends on when the bonds were issued, having been ratcheted down before new bonding was put on hold altogether.

The wholesale elimination of the funding raised alarms for local municipalities, which will owe the payments one way or another, and warnings about steep tax property tax increase to cover the payments. The governor proposed the complete elimination of the program while the House had approved 50 percent of the funding.

The Senate’s proposal fully funds the spending at 100 percent, or about $99.8 million.

The Senate budget makes deeper cuts elsewhere with additional cuts to Medicaid spending, and the removal of any money for oil tax credits, which the Senate’s budget aides said would likely not be needed because the governor is moving ahead with a bonding plan under last year’s new legislation.

In total, the Senate’s budget cuts about $192 million from the current budget and comes in about $81 million below the House proposal.

Compromise on ethics bill

The Legislature reached a compromise on legislation to update the Legislature’s ethics rules that were approved just last session. Some legislators said those new ethics rules, which expanded the definition of what constituted a conflict of interest, prevented them from talking with constituents on certain matters or doing basic activities related to running a committee.

The chambers each took different approaches to the rule. The Senate opted for a wholesale repeal of the in-question legislation while the House sought a more nuanced approach that reworked the troublesome interpretation of the law.

The conference committee on the bill met Monday to roll out a compromise, eliminating a portion of the rules that set a specific monetary amount—$10,000—for what constitutes a conflict of interest. Instead, only direct employment or negotiating for employment would constitute a conflict of interest.

KTOO’s Andrew Kitchenman reported on the compromise, adding this explanation:

And it also only affects cases where the benefit is greater for the lawmaker, their spouse or their employers than it is for their broader profession, industry or region. For example, a lawmaker who’s a doctor could vote on a bill that benefits all doctors, but not on one that benefits only those who specialize in the kind of medicine the lawmaker practices.

The compromise will now head back to both chambers for approval.

API gets a new CEO

Department of Health and Social Services announced on Monday that it canceled the long-term portion of a controversial no-bid contract with Wellpath Recovery Solutions amid a lawsuit brought by the state employees’ union.

Shortly after the announcement, the state also announced that the Alaska Psychiatric Institute had a new CEO in Matt Dammeyer, who previously worked for the Central Peninsula Hospital. Dammeyer was recently confirmed by the Legislature for a position on the Board of Psychologists and Psychological Associate Examiners.

About $1 million to $1.5 million

That’s the rough cost estimate of a special session ranging from $1.08 million for a 30-day session in Juneau up to $1.48 million for a 30-day session in Anchorage, according to a report by the Anchorage Daily News’ James Brooks.

The cost for the much-rumored Wasilla special session is $1.2 million.

‘Offender Joe’

Even though the House isn’t giving the governor’s crime bills the speedy passage he demands, it doesn’t mean that crime is not on the agenda. The House Finance Committee kicked off its first informational hearing on crime on Monday afternoon with a review of a hypothetical “Offender Joe” and his journey through Alaska’s criminal justice system, including pre-trial, parole and probation.

The hearing was generally an informative overview of the system with explanations of things like credit for good time served and penalties for violating conditions of parole.

The committee will continue today with a hearing on “Community perspectives on crime” and will take public testimony on a bill by Rep. John Lincoln, D-Kotzebue, that would update the state’s sex crime laws.

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