The limits of the 21-member majority show as the budget runs off the rails

The Alaska Capitol Building.

It was a long, exhausting and mostly dumb weekend for the Alaska House of Representatives as it attempted to get through the operating budget, the one must-pass piece of every legislative session.

The budget work began on Friday afternoon, ran through a marathon amendment session on Saturday and came crashing to a halt on Sunday as minority Republicans pledged revolt after a vote to continue with amendments failed, leaving dozens of their long-shot amendments no chance to be heard. After a torturously uneventful Sunday, the House sent the operating budget back to the House Rules Committee for further work.

What’s going on

It turns out that passing an operating budget with a 21-member majority is, in fact, really hard!

Democrats are in the majority thanks to the support of Reps. Kelly Merrick, R-Anchorage, and Josiah Patkotak, I-Utqiagvik, but they also had to watch as Merrick and Patkotak (as well as a handful of others) helped the minority get five of their amendments passed on Saturday. Without any votes to spare, it’s put a lot of pressure on the 21-member majority as some of the more progressive members are getting chafed at the shifting budget (Traditionally, the minority budget amendments wouldn’t get any traction but also majorities are typically not a slim 21 that rely on two minority-friendly members).

As House adjourned on Saturday night, observers noted that it’d require a majority vote to return to the amendment process on Sunday. It’s not entirely clear that everyone understood that would be the case or that the vote would fail, but that’s just what happened on Sunday.

Cutting off amendments may have been an effort to hold the line on the budget from slipping too far to the right, but it’s a bad look for the narrowly divided House and what little debate did happen on Sunday was acrimonious as tempers flared. Minority Republican frequently ran afoul of the legislative rules of decorum as they floated the 1981 coup (which saw House leadership change behind locked doors) and references to late-night text messages.

Whether anyone in the majority has actually walked away from the budget at this point isn’t entirely clear, but pushing the budget back to the Rules Committee in large part to appease the minority’s moderate Reps. Steve Thompson and Bart LeBon (the former of which had some particularly angry things to say on the floor Sunday about the amendments being cut off) could help shore up the votes. Either way, it certainly sticks a wrench in the Legislature’s hopes of being done on Day 121. The Senate Finance Committee was set to start hearing the bill today.

The dividend

What everyone figured would probably be the biggest hurdle of the budget, the PFD, came at about midday on Saturday when Rep. Kevin McCabe’s amendment proposing a full PFD hit the floor. “This is the full PFD amendment,” he said. “You get to put your vote where your mouth is. … You get to vote for the full PFD.” 

In a largely symbolic effort, Rep. Sara Rasmussen offered an amendment that would combine the $2 billion spend with $2 billion in cuts to state government, slicing pretty much every other budget clean in half (in unspecified, unallocated cuts). She ultimately withdrew it, noting that it would likely trigger an avalanche of lawsuits. It left the proposal, like pretty much every other PFD proposal, drawing from the Alaska Permanent Fund’s earnings reserve account beyond the spending limit legislators set in recent years.

The argument over the PFD was pretty much as you’d expect given the battle lines that have been drawn between pro-PFD legislators, anti-tax legislators and legislators intent on following the spending limits set on the budget. While the pro-PFD crowd acknowledged that paying out such a PFD was reckless and unsustainable, they at least acknowledged that there needs to be a bigger discussion about the future of the fund and the state’s financial situation. Opponents warned against overspending the Alaska Permanent Fund, arguing that it would undermine the fund and the state’s financial future in the blink of an eye. 

“The passage of this amendment is not tenable and it’s not good for the long-term of Alaska because when you spend down the permanent fund unsustainably, everybody loses,” said Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, who’s proposed a measure that would constitutionalize the spending limit for the Alaska Permanent Fund. “If you like dividends, you lose. You’re not going to be able to pay dividends in the future. If you care about ferries or the Silvertip Maintenance Station on the Kenai or whatever your priority is, you lose. You lose. Everybody loses when we start spending down the permanent fund, everybody loses no matter what your priority is. The long-term of Alaska loses. So, be aware that’s the implication. if you’re going to propose amendments like this, figure out where the money is going to come from. Put forward a full and complete plan.” 

The vote failed on a 20-20 margin with minority Republican Reps. LeBon and Thompson joining the House Coalition while Coalition Reps. Snyder, Foster and Patkotak joined the minority.

What’s changed

The House approved five minority-run amendments before they hit the wall, which are as follows: 

  • Caps legislative per diem at about four months, cutting the maximum allowable per diem in half to $1.9 million. Some member worried that it would give the governor leverage over legislators in the event of a special session during the interim. It was adopted on a 23-17 vote with Reps. Fields, Foster, Merrick, Patkotak and Rasmussen joining the minority Republicans. 
  • Intent language that DNR sell gravel or fill extracted from state land at cost to government agencies or public corporations that are “not competing with private industry.” The amendment was offered by Rep. Kevin McCabe and passed 21-19 with Reps. Merrick, Patkotak and Rasmussen joining the minority Republicans.
  • An amendment making the Legislature’s budget contingent on the Capitol being opened to the public on or before May 19, 2021, which is the final day of session. The amendment was by Rep. David Eastman and passed with Reps. Merrick, Patkotak and Rasmussen joining the minority Republicans.
  • A transfer from the Alaska Liquefied Natural Gas Project Fund to the Department of Law to defend the state’s position on the Second Amendment. It was offered by Rep. David Nelson and passed 23-17 with Reps. Merrick, Patkotak, Rasmussen, Stutes and Tuck joining the minority Republicans.
  • Cut $126,000 in state and $126,000 in federal funds for supplies for the Division of Public Assistance as part of the move to more online applications, which isn’t actually expected to be fully enacted this following year. It was offered by Rep. Vance and passed 21-19 with, surprise, Reps. Merrick, Patkotak and Rasmussen joining the minority Republicans.

The big picture

The House is just one step along the way. Still ahead is the Senate, whose “marathon” session on the disaster declaration bill last week looks quaint following the House’s show, and the budget conference committee. I’ve had more than a few people gripe to me with some variation of “Guys, live to fight another day.” It’s hard to see how some of the amendments pushed by the minority would actually survive the whole process.  

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