Near-unanimous budget vote still dramatic thanks to Eastman. AKLEG Day 37 recap

Booted from a huddle with his own caucus, Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, waits alone on the House floor on Feb. 26, 2020. (Screenshot from Gavel Alaska)

The 37th day of the Legislative session had plenty of interesting-looking things on the schedule, but all anyone was talking about was the awfully dramatic passage of the supplemental budget in the House, which probably deserves its own post (or at least more opining in Friday in the Sun). Here’s a rundown of what happened plus a few other things—like the operating budget amendment and the alcohol law—that popped up.

Supplemental drama

Hoo boy, the House went off the rails on Wednesday when the supplemental budget hit the floor. With no extra spending beyond Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s request, the proposal to close the gaps in the current year’s budget was largely uncontroversial and ultimately cleared not just the threshold to pass but to also make the necessary withdrawal from the Constitutional Budget Reserve (a typically tricky three-quarter vote) with plenty of room to spare.

But leave it to Beaver Rep. David Eastman to make it into a mess.

Eastman offered a pair of amendments going after the Alaska Court System for the outcome of the medically necessary abortion lawsuit (the one where Dunleavy vetoed the cost of the abortions out of the court system budget). The main thrust of his amendments went after the court system because that lawsuit ultimately awarded attorney fees to Planned Parenthood.

Eastman, who’s never missed an opportunity to inject abortion politics into the Legislature (particularly as a wedge among Republicans), tried his best to relitigate the case during his amendment process.

Even typically fringe Republicans like Rep. Ben Carpenter opposed the effort. Carpenter (after his own bit of drama) said he didn’t like where the money was going (a line nearly every Republican who spoke on the amendment had to point out) but that he wasn’t about to flaunt the rule of law. He said that sure the court and Legislature are co-equal branches, but it’s the laws passed by the Legislature that dictate the settlement fees.

With legislators already on edge about abortion politics, there was the usual attempts to keep Eastman on task and the usual indignant refusal by Eastman. It led to one of the most serious showdowns between House Speaker Bryce Edgmon and Eastman with Edgmon warning Eastman that he had the votes to shut him up.

It led to a lengthy at-ease with chatter even among Republicans about potentially ejecting Eastman from the chamber. It ultimately didn’t happen as Eastman was notably quiet after the lengthy pause. It’s clear that he’s gone so far that even his caucus members are done with him.

Whether that will lead to anything is unclear but stay tuned!

Supplemental budget

Oh, right. The supplemental budget passed the House. At nearly $300 million, the measure erases much of the cuts Dunleavy made in his first year. Here’s some of the highlights:

  • $120 million in UGF (and $143.4 million in federal money) to close the gaps created by an overeager governor’s vetoes and cuts to the Medicaid program. Everyone warned that deep cuts weren’t attainable in a single year, particularly when you Department of Health and Social Services forgets to deliver the necessary warnings for benefit reductions.
  • $110.5 million for firefighting expenses, some of which may eventually be picked up by the feds.
  • $8.6 million for adult public assistance, which was vetoed by Dunleavy.
  • $8.3 million for the adult preventative dental program, which was vetoed by Dunleavy.
  • $12 million between vessel operations and vessel repairs to get the Alaska Marine Highway System through the remainder of the year.

Alcohol bill passes Senate

A long-in-the-works effort to update Alaska’s alcohol laws passed the Senate on Wednesday. Authored by Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, the measure seeks to clarify and update everything from licensing requirements, community limitations and penalties for violating Alaska’s alcohol laws.

There’s a TON in the 123-page bill but the most likely to catch to headline are several changes aimed at settling the feud between the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office (plus the bar industry) and the budding brewery and distillery scene.

Breweries and distilleries have flourished under the state’s tasting room laws but they’ve ran afoul of AMCO and the bar industry, which argue fun and other activities aren’t allowed in the spaces. Senate Bill 52 serves as a compromise of sorts. Allowing:

  • Distilleries, breweries and wineries to stay open until 10 p.m. (as opposed to 8 p.m.)
  • Allows them to hold up to four music concerts a year, each of which would require a permit
  • Steeply raises the population limit, allowing one brewery, one winery, one distillery for each 12,000 people in a community (So Juneau would already hit its limit)
  • It also specifically permits tasting rooms to host “other community organizations or businesses to provide presentations, classes or product displays or host fundraisers.”

The operating budget

The House Finance Committee continues to slowly churn its way through committee members’ amendments on the operating budget. After voting to increase prison funding while rejecting increases to pre-K and public broadcasting (which, for the record have some funding) on Tuesday, the committee’s main issues on Wednesday included funding for the Village Public Safety Officer program, the Ocean Ranger program and behavioral health grants.

Rep. Kelly Merrick ran an amendment that would have eliminated funding for the Ocean Ranger program, the voter-created cruise ship monitoring program that the Dunleavy administration is hellbent on ending. The amendment would have eliminating funding for the program but with statutes still on the books, the program would continue to collect fees.

The Legislature is finally taking a peek at the governor’s legislation to formally kill the program, currently, but until then the Legislature doesn’t seem keen on hollowing out the program. The amendment was defeated on a caucus-line 7N-4Y vote, keeping the funding in the program (Dunleavy still killed it last year when he vetoed the money for it).

The committee rejected on a 6N-5Y vote Rep. Andy Josephson’s request to add $6 million in additional funding for behavioral health grants, which would be on top of $18 million already allotted to such spending. Josephson said there’s a clear need for the spending, but his colleagues disagreed pointing to a change in how behavioral health services can be billed to Medicaid.

Merrick also ran an amendment that would have cut $1 million from the Village Public Safety Officer, arguing that the program didn’t need it. She said she didn’t believe it would eliminate any VPSO positions, a point that House Finance Committee co-chair Rep. Neal Foster, D-Nome, said was more complicated.

“You may be correct, but it’s also not allowing that number to grow,” he said.

Backers of the VPSO program argue that the Dunleavy administration’s heel dragging and general disinterest in the VPSO program is the why the programs aren’t able to fully utilize the funding. A working group on the VPSO program recommended that funds be able to be used for recruitment, retention and solving other impediments to the VPSO programs.

The House Finance Committee appeared ready to follow those recommendations and momentarily entertained an amendment that would have altered Merrick’s amendment to change it from a $1 million cut to a $1 million increase with accompanying language that directs the Department of Public Safety to better-utilize the funding.

Merrick, seeing that the point of her amendment was being flipped, pulled it, leaving the committee without a clear vehicle for altering the program.

The committee will be back to work today and is expected to finalize the amendments.

The last remaining attention-grabbing amendments are a $10.5 million cut to the University of Alaska proposed by House Finance Committee co-chair Rep. Jennifer Johnston that would bring funding in line with the compact level agreed to by Dunleavy and the Board of Regents. If accepted, it’d amount to a $20 million cut.

There’s also an amendment by Rep. Gary Knopp, R-Kenai, that would reject the Department of Public Safety’s plan to centralize emergency communications in the Anchorage area, a move that would eliminate centers in the Kenai and Mat-Su.

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