Lots of moving parts in waning weeks of session
Lawmakers enter day 105 on Monday, giving them another 16 days to close out the session.
And there is plenty of unfinished business: budgets, crime bills, discussions on using Permanent Fund earnings to fund government services.
But unlike last year, the tone between the House and Senate is noticeably more cordial.
“I think we went through three years of trying to leverage,” said Senate Finance Co-Chair Anna MacKinnon (R-Eagle River). “Sen. [Lyman] Hoffman and the Senate leadership team is looking at communications and really understanding what the other body wants. It’s a bicameral Legislature."
“There are two different driving interests at times, so understanding what is possible is helpful, so we’ve tried to do our job in being transparent in what our wants are and listening carefully to what our counterparts want on the other side,” she added.
Still, lawmakers are inching closer to the 121-day constitutional limit and pushing the 90-day statutory limit further behind them.
In 1984, Alaskans approved a constitutional amendment that implemented the 121-day session limit by a vote of 150,999 to 46,099. That’s a 53 percentage-point difference.
In 2006, they returned to the polls and narrowly approved the 90-day limit ballot measure driven by three former lawmakers, but it was not a constitutional amendment, just a statutory change. It passed 117,675 to 113,832, or less than 2 percentage points.
So lawmakers can continue working beyond 90 days without any formal measures. Essentially, they are on the same clock, but under a different timekeeper: the constitution.
No one seems worried extensions, but neither is anyone willing to make any more predictions for an adjournment date.
“I think it’s important that everyone recognizes that people have different priorities,” said House Resources Vice-Chair Les Gara (D-Anchorage). “To try to resolve a way to get to those priorities in a calm way that doesn’t raise temperatures so we can finish our work on time. I think people on both sides of the aisle are doing that.”
Last week, lawmakers mostly passed personal legislation back and forth to one another, while chipping away at the heavier items like the budgets.
Other than the budget, there is legislation known in the Capitol as “must haves” for a particular lawmaker or caucus. Even Gov. Bill Walker has a few.
Those can complicate or advance the end game.
On Monday, a conference committee, which is made up of three members each from the House and Senate, is scheduled to meet on Senate Bill 26.
The final draft could determine the percent Permanent Fund earnings used for government spending and how that percentage gets divided between the annual budget and dividend payouts.
The original bill also called for a spending limit, but the House stripped out that provision. Senate Majority Leader Peter Micciche responded with his own spending limit bill.
His bill, SB 196 calls for a $4.1 billion budget spending limit. It applies to the state’s unrestricted general fund with exceptions, including payments for the permanent fund dividend.
It’s already cleared the Senate and one House committee and is in the House Finance Committee.
“What a spending limit does is it forces us to agree on prioritization as a Legislature,” Micciche said. “That’s imperative. I think what’s happened in the past is that we’ve moved so far out of the services that every Alaskan demands and further into programs that a smaller portion of Alaskans would like to have, but that competition has become problematic."
“And you’re seeing some of that today. So when I think about priorities that essentially get us out of here, a spending limit is important to us. Is it a must have this year, it’s a must-have,” he added.
There are also crime bills in play.
One gives judges additional authority. especially when it comes to considering out-of-state criminal records at bail hearings.
Lawmakers have been faced with incessant pushback on sweeping changes made two years ago as ineffective and full of loopholes
It’s common for the Legislature to ultimately aggregate crime legislation under a single bill. In recent weeks, House Judiciary Committee Chair Matt Claman (D-Anchorage) and Senate Judiciary Chair John Coghill (R-North Pole) say they have worked to find the right combination of crime bills to instill public trust.
“What we hear from the public is we really have to look at areas that have become big areas of concern, then try to come up with some kind of crime package this year,” Claman said. “We have to look for ways in which we can show the public that we’ve heard them and that we’ve taken positive steps. But we also have to recognize that public safety issues are complicated.”
One of Walker’s priorities is getting Legislature’s support for a plan to in eliminating nearly $1 billion in debt owed to oil and gas companies.
Even as the state has been repaying the statutory minimum, his administration believes wiping out the balance to a mothballed credit program can help create a stronger investment climate.
Once skeptical lawmakers are slowly getting behind his plan.
“When I first saw the bill and heard about it, I had concerns,” said Senate Resources Co-Chair Cathy Giessel (R-Anchorage). “When I met with Commissioner [Sheldon] Fisher and (Deputy Commissioner) Mike Barnhill as well as the lenders carrying this paper for the tax credits, I’ve been convinced this is a good plan going forward."
“Now seeing the House is looking at it carefully, it looks like they are seeing the rationale, too. I think it’s a good thing that we’re both seeing the prudence of this. We definitely want to get these tax credits off the books. They are definitely not helpful," she added.
How all this comes together remains to be seen.
Former two-term House Speaker John Harris said there is no precise formula for an adjournment.
”There is no way to put your finger on what the correct thing to do is,” said Harris, who now roams the halls as a lobbyist. “It’s all a matter of how you can get people to compromise and what are the techniques to do that."
“People always ask me how do you get out of town. How do you vote for CBR draw? It’s relationships. Everything is relationships," he said. "If you have an antagonistic relationship between majority-minority, within the caucus, or between the two bodies, it makes it more difficult. It doesn’t make it impossible. It makes it more difficult.”
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