The entire 43rd day of the Legislative session was spent with the House taking up amendments, debate and a vote on the operating budget, which marked one of the speediest and earliest passages of the operating budget in recent memory.
Oh, also Clark Penney canceled the controversial no-bid, sole-source contract with the state that, much to Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s frustration, legislators wouldn’t stop asking about.
Can’t be sure if anything happened in the Senate.
The typical operating budget rigmarole is a days-long or late-into-the-night process of dozens—if not hundreds—of amendments that go along expected caucus lines followed by nearly every member of the 40-person chamber delivering their own speeches in debate. It’s a smelly—sometimes literally—and exhausting process that typically has marked the halfway point in session.
This year’s operating budget process was started and completed within normal business hours, leaving a few days to spare before the start of the actual session.
It’s a remarkable change from last year, but it makes sense in the context of this session.
First, the budget is nearly identical to the one that Gov. Mike Dunleavy introduced. It’s largely seen as a status quo budget with a few increases aimed at criminal justice: Increases to troopers, attorneys, the court system and prisons. Without the governor’s leadership or backing for conservative legislators to push for further cuts, we didn’t see the usual flurry of amendments calling for cuts and that greatly cut down on things.
Add to that, the minority Republicans’ growing frustration with far-right Rep. David Eastman, who in Rep. Tammie Wilson’s absence was the chief driver of amendments on Tuesday. Most of his amendments were in the intent language or complete political suicide realm (cutting funding for domestic violence shelters) so they didn’t gain much, if any, support.
Rep. Jennifer Johnston, the Anchorage Republican who co-chairs the House Finance Committee, was particularly irritated by Eastman’s intent language-heavy amendments, calling them “talking point amendments” and “press release amendments.”
“If you want to the cut the budget, be bold and propose cuts. Cuts are hard and they take courage and substantial work and research. So far the amendments we’ve heard debated on the floor today increase our statewide spending by about $5 billion,” she said. “Just to reiterate these are talking points, not budget cuts.”
Second, the House approved very few increases to the budget, which might come as a surprise if you’ve been living in the conservative media world where the House Majority is somehow beholden to its Democratic members. The House is still majority Republican, after all.
In the House Finance Committee, minority and majority Republicans voted together to reject or remove several instances Democrat-favored spending: $10 million for the University of Alaska on top of the compact between the regents and Dunleavy, $4.3 million for pre-K grants and $700,000 in additional money for public broadcasting (it should be noted that all those programs have some money in this budget).
Oh, and there’s $11 million on top of Dunleavy’s proposal for the Alaska Marine Highway System. It’s part of a plan to restore limited, but year-round service to the system. It will require a pretty hefty corresponding spend in the capital budget—$23 million to get several ferries back into operating shape—but there’s a possibility that federal funds could take the bite off it.
The one thing not in the budget is the dividend. Eastman offered an amendment that would have added the whole statutory dividend back into the budget, but it was defeated along caucus lines as Rep. Neal Foster, the House Finance Committee co-chair who oversees the operating budget, said it should be saved for another day.
“I think that is a discussion that is ongoing and until we get a little closer to where we want to be, I would prefer that we not have folks become entrenched in their position. I think this is going to take a little bit of compromise,” Foster said. “I think we all realize we have some way to go on this and so it was our intent that we take this up at a later date. Let’s get the budget taken care for now.”
Eastman had several amendments on the PFD, including an array on back payment of previous PFDs. In a remarkable turn, some minority Republicans spoke against repayment of PFDs.
Minority Leader Rep. Lance Pruitt said may people in his district had said they don’t want to see a fight over the repayment of PFDs. He also said that the money kept in the permanent fund is returning value, bolstering the fund and helping grow future dividends.
“I think many people have said let’s move forward,” he said.
It was not the only time that minority Republicans would cite their district’s input in rejecting amendments to cut things that Dunleavy had vetoed last year. We saw similar talk about defending community health grants and the Alaska State Council on the Arts.
Several minority Republicans also defended language in the budget that bars Attorney General Kevin Clarkson from pursuing his anti-union lawsuit attempting to expand the Janus ruling with contract attorneys. Eastman proposed axing language that had been approved in a subcommittee, but several minority Republicans said it didn’t make sense to spend $600,000 on the lawsuit.
“How would the public view this body if we’re only fiscally responsible when it’s politically advantageous to us?” said Rep. Kelly Merrick, R-Eagle River.
Rep. Sara Rasmussen, an Anchorage Republican who was among the “I’m listening to my constituents crowd, also said Clarkson’s use of Outside attorneys goes against the desire to put Alaskans to work.
Still, it wasn’t entirely kumbaya between the minority and majority on the amendments.
Minority Republicans also introduced intent language that would have sought to bar the University of Alaska from using any state funding to limit or regulate the possession of firearms on campuses. After a lengthy debate, the Legislature approved an amendment to the amendment by Rep. Chuck Kopp that would have banned the use of funds “if the regulation or policy is contrary to state law.”
He and other majority members said it would allow the university to still enforce rules like keep firearms away from the pubs, day cares and other sensitive settings. They called it a compromise that would help everyone support the measure. A few minority Republicans agreed, calling the changes sensible.
Rep. Sarah Vance, the Homer Republican who had the lead on the amendment, disagreed. Rather than see a compromise pass the House, she withdrew the amendment.
The final vote on the budget was along caucus lines. Minority Republicans said they ultimately couldn’t support the budget without a dividend but praised the generally smooth and collaborative process that produced the budget.
The bill now heads to the Senate, which has already been working through the budget.
Tweet of the day
Kids have it easy nowadays. Back in my day, we had to deal with over 300 amendments! pic.twitter.com/XQhnOmXpJY
— jason (@jgrenn) March 4, 2020