Despite talk about alternative proposals and a Senate that has its own troubles, the House pushed ahead with a vote on the budget Tuesday night. The budget passed along caucus lines but, as was expected, House minority Republicans voted against the key Constitutional Budget Reserve vote despite a take-it-or-leave-it compromise that linked it to half of a $1,100 dividend, oil tax credits, several capital projects in their districts and half of the school bond debt reimbursement money.
Republicans found a litany of excuses and rationalizations for their opposition, blaming the budget negotiators for twisting their arms—likening the tactic to “a husband who chooses to beat his wife”—blaming the House majority for not involving them and arguing that failing to pass the Constitutional Budget Reserve reverse sweep and effectively gutting dozens of state programs was, in fact, wise fiscal policy.
The Constitutional Budget Reserve vote can still be achieved with a revote before the end of the special session on Friday, through another bill or later in the year, but its failure will be felt by tens of thousands of Alaskans as early as July. The failure to reach the 30-vote threshold in the House means several semi-dedicated funds that went to programs to help rural Alaskans with the high cost of power in their communities or to provide scholarships promised to Alaska high school graduates will be swept into the Constitutional Budget Reserve, leaving the programs without the money to operate.
“When we don’t do this, all we’re doing is breaking things. I’d ask you, don’t break things,” implored Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage. “You want to reform the system? Let’s talk about that. Don’t break things. You’re breaking the Alaska people when you do it.”
But all the reasoning, appeals and references to history—that the Power Cost Equalization fund was established as an equity measure after the state spent billions lowering the energy costs for urban Alaskans—fell on deaf ears. The program should have its funds swept into the savings account for a “rainy day” and the program, which they claim to support because they had offered an amendment that unrealistically attempted to fund it in an alternative matter, should compete with everything else in the budget. It’s everyone else’s fault that they’d be voting no.
“The blame does not rest on the no votes,” claimed Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer.
As for the PFD, the Republicans argued that the strong returns of the Alaska Permanent Fund justified skimming some off the top in order to pay out bigger dividends.
Rep. DeLena Johnson said she “grieved” that the vote would also affect several projects in her community—instead of falling mostly on rural Alaskans as it has in the past—but said she would live with it. Going unfunded in the Mat-Su Valley because of the vote is $9 million for the earthquake-shuttered Houston Middle School, $8.5 million for the West Susitna Access project, $10 million for road projects, $1.5 million for the Port Mackenzie Correctional Center and a $2.3 million roof replacement for the Palmer Alaska Veterans and Pioneer Home.
Rep. Neal Foster, D-Nome, said he hoped urban Alaska would not forget its commitment to help rural Alaska with power. Though he also supported a larger dividend, he defended the effort to spread the pain of failure throughout the state.
“We should all feel the effects if that three-quarter vote isn’t achieved,” he said. “We’re all in the same boat.”
In the end, just three minority Republicans—Reps. Steve Thompson, Bart LeBon and Mike Cronk (all from the Interior)—crossed over in support of the CBR vote.
From the majority’s perspective, it’s a fight that will eventually get settled one way or another.
“My message to those out in rural Alaska, in the Interior, southern Alaska and even in some of the more suburban urban communities that participate in the PCE program is it’s not over yet,” said Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham. “We’re going to come back, we’re going to get those votes at some point and if I have anything to say with it, it will be part of a larger fiscal package.”