Session update: Budget stuck on state employee wage increases
So close, yet so far.
Republican Senators Anna MacKinnon and Pete Kelly, who are part of the conference committee tasked with crafting a final version of a budget, were poised to concur Wednesday with all but one of the compromises made in the House of Representative’s budget that passed last week.
The one item holding up a vote is cost of living increases for state employees. The committee failed to take action after Rep. Les Gara, Rep. Steve Thompson and Sen. Donny Olson voiced opposition.
“To me, it’s like moving the goal posts backwards,” said Gara, adding that he couldn’t vote on a budget that breaks state employee contracts. “We made that agreement on Friday; I stand by that agreement.”
The House and Senate passed two different budgets, so the conference committee — made up of six lawmakers — is working on a final version that at least three-quarters of legislators can agree on.
“We’ve proposed to accept, with the support of our caucus, $31 million in new spending,” said MacKinnon during the conference committee meeting, adding that it will be money coming from the state’s savings account, the Constitutional Budget Reserve (CBR).
“This is a discussion between giving pay raises at a time when we have an $8-billion debt tsunami coming at us over the next two years,” said Kelly.
Union and non-union state employees are scheduled for a cost-of-living wage increase in 2016. For those covered by a collective bargaining agreement, the increase is 2.5 percent. The increases total around $30 million in 2016 – though in the budget that passed the House, Gov. Bill Walker’s administration is tasked with finding the money through additional cuts.
The employee contracts are causing a divide between House and Senate Republicans.
“When we came up with the compromise agreement, I felt like it was a handshake saying, ‘Yes, OK, we are there,'” said Thompson, a Fairbanks Republican. “I’ve never been one to go back on my word.”
On the education front, Senate Republicans said they are willing to vote yes on using $16.5 million to fully fund the Base Student Allocation (BSA). Education funding advocates are cautiously optimistic.
“What we will be more grateful for is action, and I think that the whole state will be grateful for action, we are done with talk,” said Alyse Galvin of Great Alaska Schools after the conference committee recessed.
It is clear everyone is getting tired.
“Many nights, seven days a week, I haven’t been home in over a month,” said Thompson, who flew home Wednesday afternoon to spend time with his son.
“We know that this is a drop in the bucket with regard to the big picture of money,” said Galvin. “And yet, we are here how many days? Wasting how many resources talking about this little bit of money? — when we really should be talking about how can we grow our revenue.”
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