Operating budget clears the House with several GOP amendments and one big problem

The Alaska Capitol Building.

Eight days after the budget process ran off the rails and nine days before the end of the legislative session, the House has finally passed out the operating budget after a lengthy day of amendments.

The budget bill emerges from the House without a PFD, with several minority Republican-backed amendments that include one attempting to ban public funding for abortions and one big problem in light of the federal government’s new guidance on how the more than $1 billion in federal American Rescue Plan Act can be spent.

The House operating budget counts on being able to spend more than $700 million of that money this year, largely to free up state money for the dividend but as well as other economic recovery-targeted spending, but Monday’s federal guidance puts a wrench in that plan. The guidance says the state will receive the funding in two chunks this year and next.

With days dwindling on the session, House Finance Committee co-chair Rep. Neal Foster acknowledged that it would be a problem but said that he trusts the Senate to make the course corrections once it receives the budget and hash out the difference once it reaches the conference committee.

“I think it’s a relatively easy fix. We’ll go to conference and can adjust this down to the 50%. I don’t think that’s a really difficult issue,” he said. “What would be difficult is if we sent this back to finance, has to go back through hearings, the amendment process and back to the floor for the amendment process again. We’ve got to be out of here by May 19 and that could certainly add another week on top of that. I’m comfortable with taking this to conference.”

Monday’s floor session saw the House churn through several dozen more amendments that would have been cut off if the House had not returned to the amendment process. Here’s a rundown of the key highlights:

  • On a 21-18 vote, the House added an anti-abortion amendment that treads old, unconstitutional ground. Like previous efforts, the amendment by Rep. Christopher Kurka, the former director of the antiest-abortion group Alaska Right to Life, targets the roughly $334,000 the state pays for abortions covered under Medicaid. Attempts to curb such funding have been struck down twice by the courts, first when the Legislature passed a bill trying to set in law what made an abortion “medically necessary” and again after Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed the court system in retaliation for ruling. With a number of hardline anti-abortion legislators, the debate was particularly vitriolic with references to baby murder and the like. At one point Rep. Ben Carpenter said it’s “insulting” that women can choose to get pregnant and choose to have an abortion. “She had a choice and the baby does not.” Several Democrats spoke against the amendment, warning that it’s already a settled issue and will only cost the state more in the long run. Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage, said if they’re truly interested in reducing the state’s abortion rates then they ought to invest in birth control and sex education.
  • Several minority-Republican amendments were passed with the support of either House Finance co-chair Kelly Merrick, R-Eagle River, or House Speaker Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak. While Merrick’s break with the majority coalition has been largely par for the course this session, seeing a House Speaker be the lone majority vote in passing a minority amendment was pretty unprecedented.
  • As for the content of those other GOP-backed amendments, they were by and large largely meaningless intent language or minor, piecemeal cuts. The most significant proposals were largely opposed.
  • At least the Democrats did get one significant floor amendment passed on Monday, Rep. Liz Snyder’s amendment that shrinks the proposed cut to the Division of Public Assistance staffing to half. Instead of cutting 101 positions that had been planned through a move to online applications, the amendment would instead cut 51 largely vacant positions. Snyder argued that it’s largely because the administration hasn’t actually implemented the changes that would have driven the savings. The amendment includes language saying the Legislature plans to revisit the issue in the following year. It passed 23-16.
  • An attempt to penalize any public or private organization for mandating vaccines by barring them from receiving any state funding through grants and other contracts (which may have, for example, barred Anchorage School District from receiving state funds because it’s requiring chaperones on field trips be vaccinated) failed on a 21-18 vote.
  • Unions can largely breath easy after that budget process. Several anti-union amendments that all seemed to stem from the administration’s intentional misreading of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Janus v. AFSCME failed by pretty wide margins.

The vote: The final vote on the bill was 23-16 with non-majority Republican Reps. Steve Thompson, Bart LeBon and Sara Rasmussen crossing over. Despite seeing an unprecedented number of their amendments pass, minority Republicans largely opposed the measure with the common note being about its lack of a dividend, bigger cuts and the problem with federal funding. Rep. Mike Cronk, R-Tok, supported the draw from the constitutional budget reserve, which is needed largely to reverse the sweep of funds into it (important for power cost equalization, scholarships and other funds). Along with Rep. Josiah Patkotak, who was absent, that would leave the House five votes short of the votes needed for the reverse sweep, which can be won when it returns from the conference committee.

The dividend problem: The budget doesn’t include a dividend of any size, which is not surprising. Even Gov. Mike Dunleavy had proposed handling it separately. Currently, there’s a proposal for a $500 PFD in the works, but the final number could be adjusted at just any point in the process. The legislation has only been introduced in the House.

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