Budget, PFD stall as House GOP minority makes one last push for big payout

The House chambers. (Photo by aa440/Flickr Creative Commons)

With time fast running out for the dividend to be settled in order to be paid on time and a slate of other critical spending measures on the table, the House stumbled on Wednesday night after the 18-member Republican Minority refused to show up for the floor session.

Though they were present in the building, the 18-member Republican minority refused to participate in the floor session and thereby denied the 21-member House Majority—which has one member absent due to work and a caucus-less member out due to a possible covid close contact—the numbers necessary to hold quorum. The Legislature requires a majority of members be present to hold legislative business for the day.

“There are 38 house members in this building right now and 18 of them chose not to attend the floor session so of course we didn’t have quorum,” House Speaker Louise Stutes told reporters in an impromptu news conference following the technical floor session that had been planned to start work on the budget. “That’s a very sad statement we’re talking the PFD for 735,000 Alaskans that’s what’s in this bill. … It’s outrageous and as you can tell I’m feeling a little frustrated. I’m appalled. This is way beneath Alaskan standards.”

The move represents a souring of already-sour relations between the bipartisan House Majority Coalition and the conservative Republican minority. The size of the dividend is the key issue. Most, but not all of the Republican minority pushing for larger dividends to be paid for from savings while most, but not all of the House Majority Coalition wants to see a more done to settle the state’s finances before dipping into savings.

On a 7-4 vote with little pushback from the minority Republicans, the House Finance Committee approved an amendment to the special session operating budget on Tuesday night that would set this year’s dividend at $1,100, a figure that members in the House Majority Coalition argue is affordable and would preserve the state’s investments.

Also in the budget is $114 million to pay off credits collected by oil tax companies under the old oil tax regime, a move that Stutes said was there to appease the House Republican minority. During those hearings, Nikiski Republican Rep. Ben Carpenter suggested spending more than $700 million out of state savings to pay off the entirety of the oil tax credits, which was rejected.

Rep. Neal Foster, the Nome Democrat who’s one of the few majority members to support paying a larger dividend regardless of the state of the state’s fiscal plan, was critical of the inclusion of the oil tax credits at all. He said the money could and should go to boosting the PFD.

“I don’t think it’s going to be lost on folks that we will not be paying the statutory PFD but we will be paying statutory oil credits to the oil companies,” he said.

A wrinkle on the whole thing, though, is that the budget calls for restoring money to the state’s college scholarship program as well as the WWAMI medical exchange program. The WWAMI program faces a Sept. 1 deadline before Alaska medical students see their tuitions spike from the in-state tuition afforded by the program to out-of-state levels. It’s one of the key drivers of the budget push, but on Wednesday night Gov. Mike Dunleavy said he now believes that this year’s appropriations for the programs are, in fact, effective. This would contradict much of the legal thinking so far, but has the impact of easing the pressure on the minority to vote for the bill immediately, potentially extending the session as they continue to push for a larger payout.

House Rules Committee chair Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, warned that such a move was risky and could lead to things breaking down and no PFD being paid at all. It’s “completely unacceptable,” he said.

It’s expected that Anchorage Republican Rep. Sara Rasmussen, the caucus-less member who had been out due to a potential covid close contact, will return on Friday in order to give the House the numbers needed for quorum.

The whole Republican walkout in a way mirrors legislative tactics of other state’s legislatures. In Texas earlier this year, Democrats left the state over a Republican voting laws, and Oregon Republicans have long made a habit of walking out to deny quorum. Like in Texas, the Alaska Legislature could force members to be attend a floor session and can call in the Alaska State Troopers to do so (a move that’s been done before), but for now the House Majority members say they’re not willing to go down that route.

“Very disappointed. We’re very disappointed,” Stutes said. “At the beginning of the session, one of minority members said they were speaking for all the minority and that their job was to be obstructionists. Well, apparently, they’re holding true to that.”

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