Week Ahead: Legislature enters the homestretch with budget, PFD and crime on the agenda

Something might be going on in there.The Alaska State Capitol building as photographed in 2010. (Photo by Kimberly Vardeman/Creative Commons)

If you count today, there are 10 days remaining in the 121-day legislative session. That’s 10 days for legislators to send a fully funded budget to the governor or lose out on their per diem payments thanks to a new legislative ethics law passed last year.

With the PFD, crime and a capital budget also on the agenda, the Legislature has plenty of work to do. Here’s a rundown of some of the big things ahead this week.

The 24-hour rule

The Legislature is expected to fully appoint its conference committee on the operating budget today after the House rejected the Senate budget on Friday. Though there were rumors that the House was considering concurring with the Senate version of the budget—thanks in large part to a $3,000 dividend and a rejection of the governor’s deeply unpopular cuts—the House ultimately decided not to roll the dice and hope things get sorted out in the capital budget.

The House appointed its Finance Committee co-chairs Reps. Neal Foster and Tammie Wilson to the committee, as well as minority Republican Rep. Cathy Tilton.

The Senate was not in session after the House rejected the operating budget so the earliest it can take up the House’s rejection and appoint its members to the conference committee is today when it meets at 2 p.m.

Once both chambers have appointed their members to the conference committee, the Legislature will finally be under the “24-hour rule” that loosens the requirements for public notice.

We explained how this and the conference committee will work in a post last week about the end of the session, but here’s what to know about the 24-hour rules:

Typically, a week’s meetings must be released on the proceeding Thursday afternoon.

Under the 24-hour rule, committees can post a meeting with as little as 24 hours’ notice. Well, that would be the case in a world where “24 hours” means “24 hours.” It’s much more often interpreted as the day ahead, so we’ll frequently see afternoon postings for meetings the following morning.

It’s not the only thing that will make tracking the final few weeks of session tricky, as committees can also take up legislation under the “Bills Previously Heard/Scheduled” agenda items. Stay tuned.

The conference committee itself will be tasked with hashing out the differences between the two budgets. There are a lot of minor differences between the two budgets, which both largely rejected the deep cuts requested by Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy. The big-ticket items will be the dividend, where the Senate included a $3,000 dividend and the House included none.

The House plan calls for the dividend to be taken up in separate legislation.

The 24-member caucus

The House’s vote on the operating budget wasn’t without its drama on Friday. Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, cast the lone vote for concurrence, arguing that it was her one place to advocate for a $3,000 dividend. In doing so, the Republican broke the binding rules of the majority: to vote along with the majority on budget issues.

LeDoux has voted against the majority on budget issues in the last Legislature, but that organization wasn’t binding like most majorities traditionally have been. Then, too, the dividend was a key issue for LeDoux.

LeDoux will be out of the majority, but just what penalties it might carry are not yet entirely clear. The majority can cut her staff, remove her from committees and even reassign her an office, but with just a few weeks in session that might be better saved for the interim.

What will be important to watch, however, is whether LeDoux will join the Republican Minority.

LeDoux would bring the size of the minority from 15 members to 16. The size of a minority is important because it determines how many seats the group is entitled to on any given committee.

But her membership would only qualify the minority for an additional seat on any five-member committees in the House, of which there are none. The minority would still be entitled to three four seats on the nine- eleven-member House Finance Committee and two seats on the seven-member committees, which include most of the remaining standing committees and special committees.

With that in mind, there’s probably not a lot of impetus for LeDoux and House Minority Leader Rep. Lance Pruitt. Remember, Pruitt eagerly jumped on the Republican Party’s claims that LeDoux would soon be going to jail over irregularities in her primary and even claimed publicly last fall that LeDoux’s fingerprints were on some absentee ballots.

Crime bill

The House Finance Committee rolled out a revised version of House Bill 49, making it into the omnibus crime bill that seems to satisfy the Dunleavy administration’s calls for a “war on criminals.”

The Anchorage Daily News has a full rundown of the legislation, but what stands out to us is the reclassification of first- and second-time drug possession from a class B misdemeanor to a class A misdemeanor with the possibility of up to a year in jail.

While criminal justice reform efforts in Senate Bill 91 sought to ease penalties on low-level drug offenders under the thinking that treatment and intervention would be more effective at stopping people from committing more serious crimes later on. Instead, the changes have been requested from the state essentially as a tool to threaten information out of low-level drug offenders to go after drug dealers.

The Department of Corrections raised the possibility, though, that if the increased penalties result in more people behind bars on drug offenses that the system’s already-thin treatment resources would be stretched even more thin.

The legislation is still far away from certain, however, as the House Rules Committee Chair Republican Rep. Chuck Kopp has so far tended to protect the broad strokes of criminal justice reform, advocating instead of conservative tweaks.

There’s also the cost of the new legislation, expected to be an additional $23 million to the state every year.

The bill is not currently on the schedule but could be taken up as early as today at 9 a.m. under the House Finance Committee’s “Bills Previously Heard/Scheduled.”

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