‘Total frustration.’ Legislature’s budget battle to drag on past Memorial Day

Rep. Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks, explains his frustration with the Senate over the operating budget negotiations during the May 26, 2021 floor session.

Update: The Conference Committee is set to hold its first substantive hearing today at 4 p.m.

When it became certain the Legislature would blow past the 121-day limit and continue into the special session, many within the Legislature had expected to see work on the state’s budget to be wrapped up by this weekend. So sure were they that Fairbanks Republican Rep. Steve Thompson, the House minority’s lead budget negotiator, had scheduled a getaway from Juneau starting next week.

But it turns out those hopes were like the Legislature’s perfunctory attempts to meet the 90-day session limit set by voters.

Today, in acknowledgment that the Memorial Day deadline was now impossible Thompson withdrew from his spot on the budget conference committee–replaced by fellow Fairbanks Republican Rep. Bart LeBon. In special order speeches, Thompson offered a harsh admonishment aimed at the Senate, which he accused of delaying the process.

“I feel like this session is total frustration,” Thompson said, thanking the House for assigning him to the conference committee. “When I was assigned, I had spoken to leadership to let them know I had made weeks and weeks ago arrangements to be gone next week. I was assured we’d be done with the conference committee well before that time. Not to the fault of us, it has been delayed and delayed and delayed. … Here we are still waiting and waiting and waiting.” 

The budget conference committee held an organizational meeting last week but has not met since then and has no scheduled meetings. Typically, though, the meetings are largely formalities to adopt agreements made behind closed doors.

“I’m sure many of you here are very frustrated, as I am,” Thompson said. “I want to thank Rep. LeBon of taking on the task that’s before us and I hope it has a fast resolution but I don’t see how it’s going to. The problem is not here, it’s not with us. We’ve been very clear that we wanted to work. … We’re just delayed farther and further, and that’s unforatunate. We should have been done with this process long ago.”

Though he was barred by decorum from referencing the Senate or its budget negotiating team by name, his message to the House was clear: “It’s not our fault.” 

What we’re hearing: Thompson’s assessment of the situation largely aligns with what some legislators and legislative observers have privately explained to us. The Senate is still internally grappling with its course-altering vote in support of a $2,300 PFD and the corresponding $1.5 billion overdraw from the Alaska Permanent Fund to pay for it, which has complicated negotiations with a House that had put off the PFD debate largely in service of avoiding such an overdraw. Making those two very different policy positions meet is proving to be more than a week’s worth of work.

On the other hand: It’s also hard to overlook the House’s own stumbles with passing the budget. A dispute over the amendment process saw the operating budget debate delayed for a week. Then again, though, the Senate then waited until the final day of the 121-day session to put the budget up for a floor vote, so there’s blame to be spread around.

Another consideration: There’s also the fact that the Senate’s version of the operating budget is far more expansive than what was approved in the House. It includes not just the operating budget but also the capital budget, a spending plan for more than $1 billion in federal relief money and, of course, the PFD. That’s made some of the logistical matters of the budget negotiations more intensive. The motion sheets that detail all the differences between the House and Senate versions of the budget weren’t released until Monday afternoon.

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