Today is the 70th day of the legislative session, which is still alive on a technicality, but things in Juneau have come to a close after a mad dash to the finish line as the COVID-19 pandemic circled around the Alaska State Capitol Building.
The budget is funded, the COVID-19 emergency declaration has been extended and most, but not all, efforts to help Alaskans cope with the crashing wave of uncertainty have been approved.
Here’s what happened on the Legislature’s “final” day.
The three-quarter vote
The most consequential vote of the 2020 legislative session was cast in the early hours of Sunday morning when the House gave its final try at securing the three-quarter vote on the constitutional budget reserve, a vote required to close gaps in the budget and avoid the accounting nightmare known as the reverse-sweep that would drain several program-specific savings accounts.
The looming threat of coronavirus to the personal health of the Legislature, to the Alaskans at large, to the economy and to the state budget had accelerated the legislative session, leaving little time for the usual end-of-session negotiations and deal-making.
Minority and independent Republicans had been holding onto their votes as leverage for a fight that had arrived far sooner and with far more urgency than anyone had expected when they gaveled into session less than 70 days before. They hoped to fight for a bigger PFD and bigger cuts, and up until Saturday night they had successfully refused efforts to settle the issue.
After hours of impassioned speeches from dozens of legislators as they made their final plea for fiscal restraint or for immediate cash payouts to Alaskans, it was truly unclear what happened.
With a deep inhale, the House called the vote and the board began to light up as representatives cast their votes. The names of the 23 members of bipartisan majority lit up green, as did several names of reluctant but dutiful minority Republicans.
The board sat at 29 “yes” votes for several moments as the name of Rep. Collen Sullivan-Leonard, a minority Republican who’s already announced that she won’t be running for reelection, sat white.
In a bit of maneuvering meant to force reluctant Republicans to give up on their leverage, the vote would be the difference between a $1,000 fall dividend and a $500 dividend. The difference between a fully funded budget and an eight-month budget, requiring legislators to return in November. It would be the difference between $80 million in immediate funding to respond to COVID-19 and nothing.
Already taken off the table in the name of preserving the state’s dwindling savings for another day was a proposal for an immediate $1,000 payout to Alaskans on top of the $1,000 PFD in the fall.
Minority Republicans in both chambers protested the way the vote had come together, calling it a trap devised by leadership meant to force their hands. Some complained that it was intended to make them look like “the bad guys.” Some said they were better than that and would hold out. Others acknowledged the dire position of the state and would begrudgingly vote for the measure.
They were right that is was meant to force their hands.
The failure of the reverse-sweep vote last year created chaos—and in some ways more chaos than the vetoes—because it drained several accounts overnight and, under a newly weaponized interpretation from Gov. Mike Dunleavy, several accounts that had never before been subject to this sweep.
It left university scholarships unfunded, power cost equalization unfunded and depleted the state’s vaccination program.
With the fear that it would only be a matter of time before COVID-19 breached the capitol’s doors, leadership feared that there soon wouldn’t be enough legislators in the building to amass the 30 necessary votes and another layer of uncertainty would be added to the mountain of uncertainty facing Alaska at what is shaping up to be one of its darkest hours.
“I’m thinking,” said Sullivan-Leonard as she was prompted by House Speaker Bryce Edgmon to vote.
After several long moments, Sullivan-Leonard’s name on the board turned green.
The House had hit the 30-vote margin.
The Legislature had completed its most vital of jobs and legislators, at long last, could flee Juneau.
But it was only when the House finally recessed, to a time and date to be announced, that it felt like it was time to exhale.
The operating budget, along with several other pieces of legislation, now head to Gov. Dunleavy for approval. The governor still holds a line-item power over the budget, which he’s already used this year reduce funding for special needs housing from the first budget sent to him by the Legislature.
The basics of the operating budget are as follows:
- A $1,000 PFD to be paid out at the usual time, costing the state some $680 million. It’s reduced from last year’s $1,600 PFD and rejects the additional $1,000 stimulus payment passed by the Senate.
- Education spending is slightly up over the governor’s proposed budget, including a $30 boost to K-12 funding (which would continue the Legislature’s supplemental funding from last year) and an additional $12.5 million for the University of Alaska over the agreement between Gov. Dunleavy and the UA Board of Regents.
- The budget also seeks to clamp down on the administration’s ability to use Department of Law funds to pursue its anti-union lawsuit with private contracts. The state could continue with its lawsuit, but it would only with state attorneys. Dunleavy vetoed similar provisions out of the previous budget.
- $1 billion in inflation proofing for the corpus of the Alaska Permanent Fund, which is on top of the planned transfer of several billions of dollars into the account.
- Other topline numbers include: $14 million for the Village Public Safety Officer Program, $21 million for senior benefits, $98 million for Pioneer Homes (the Legislature also approved legislation to reverse Dunleavy’s rate hikes), $151 million for state troopers (which covers new hires).
Relief bill also passes
The Legislature had several COVID-19 bills on the agenda, including HB 308 to expand access to unemployment benefits (which has already been signed by Dunleavy) and SB 241. SB 241 is an omnibus bill that extends the governor’s disaster declaration and delivers state officials several new powers to respond to the pandemic.
There’s authorization to spend out of the state’s disaster relief fund, expanded powers for the state’s chief medical officer to issue standing orders, easing of licensing standards to make it easier for health care workers to come to Alaska, clamps down on price gouging and extends worker’s compensation benefits to first responders who contract COVID-19 in the line of duty.
The measure also makes by-mail elections an option if COVID-19 makes it unsafe to hold in-person voting in the fall.
The most controversial measure, at least in the Legislature, was a three-month pause on evictions if renters can’t pay due to COVID-19. Several legislators raised concerns about the impact such provisions would have on landlords, who have mortgage payments to make.
The solution was to also extend a pause on foreclosures. Neither provision excuses renters or mortgage-holders from eventually paying their rent or mortgages, allowing rent payments and fees to mount during the next three months.
Before adjourning, the Legislature approved a rule that allows it to go longer than three days without meeting. This means the session and all the bills left behind are technically still alive and could be taken up if the Legislature reconvenes before the 90-day or 121-day end of the session.
With the passage of the budget, it’s unlikely that the Legislature will return in that window but it’s possible that the Legislature could call a special session and revive the left-behind bills.
The true next big step will be in Gov. Dunleavy’s handling of the budget, vetoes and other legislation sent to him by the Legislature in the past few weeks. In a prepared statement released Sunday afternoon, Dunleavy gave the budget a “mixed grade” and complained that the Legislature “missed the opportunity to create a cash infusion” with the additional cash payout.