AKLeg Day 88: Race to the finish of session begins with drama, uncertainty
Friday, the 88th day of the 90-day legislative session, was full of the drama that characterizes the end-of-session chaos.
The day started out with the governor calling off a joint session of the House and Senate he had ordered, to get lawmakers to vote on his cabinet and board appointments.
The governor demanded the session because he was worried the Legislature would adjourn without confirming his appointments – which would then expire and the appointment process would have to begin again. Under state statute, none of his department heads and board members could be reappointed to the same position.
In a statement, the governor said he had met with House Speaker Mike Chenault and Senate President Kevin Meyer, who assured him they would hold the confirmation vote on Sunday, the final day of the session.
“I trust them,” he said.
But by the afternoon, tension was building again.
The House Speaker was headed to a meeting with the House Finance co-chairs on the operating budget, when KTVA caught up with him and asked him about the governor’s pending veto of House Bill 132, a pipeline bill he had sponsored.
“I actually have a 3 o’clock meeting with the governor to continue discussion on that, said Speaker Mike Chenault. “I don’t know if we’ll come to an agreement on that, but it’s not due for lack of trying.”
The meeting failed to bring a resolution. The governor announced his veto shortly after their meeting.
Chenault crafted HB 132 to prevent the governor from developing another pipeline to compete with the Alaska Liquified Natural Gas project, a state partnership that includes three big oil companies.
Chenault said the governor’s plans to expand an alternative project jeopardized AKLNG, so the bill was an attempt to limit the governor’s authority to tap funds to develop a competing project. Lawmakers had recently heard from their LNG consultants, Enalytica, that pursuing two projects at the same time “imperils both.”
But the governor has said a viable back-up project is an important bargaining chip needed in upcoming negotiations with oil companies over AKLNG.
The question now is: Will House and Senate leaders follow through with a veto override? Meyer hinted there may be yet another card to play that might avert a veto override but won’t say what that is.
Aside from struggles between the executive and legislative branches, there was plenty of other drama on Day 88, with two competing noon rallies outside the State Capitol – one to restore education funding and another with anti-abortion advocates, marking a chaotic start to the final stretch.
Every year, the end of session has the feel of a college dorm with everyone cramming for the final. That’s true this year, but there are also new pressures: a new governor and a Legislature, often at odds, as well as a budget gap approaching $4 billion.
There’s also the added burden of fulfilling the intent of the initiative voters passed last fall, requiring the state to decriminalize marijuana and treat it more like alcohol. Often this session, there were several hearings a day on different aspects of legalizing marijuana for personal and commercial use, leading many lawmakers to complain this single issue has taken up a lot of the oxygen in the session for work on other bills.
Aidan Ling, a cameraman for Gavel to Gavel, a Juneau public television broadcast of the Legislature, said he’s found the committee hearings on marijuana legislation fascinating, especially the one he was preparing to cover on establishing a Marijuana Control Board.
“I’m wondering if they’re going to leave it for a year, or if we’ll have a no man’s land,” Ling said.
Gianno Barrett, who is hoping to set up a marijuana business, was sitting in the Senate Finance committee gallery, watching as well.
“It’s a big turning point for marijuana legalization,” Barrett said.
Between the focus on the budget and pot, very few bills have passed this session. But in the remaining days, they’ll be an attempt to make up for lost time.
On Friday, the sound of strapping tape and cardboard boxes being assembled could be heard throughout the building. Aides for lawmakers were already packing.
T.J. Presley, an aide to Sen. Berta Gardner, said the end of session reminds him of the end of summer camp.
“People I don’t even agree with, I’m friends with,” said Presley. “It’s kind of sad to see them go.”
Presley said one of his big disappointments was that the Legislature has yet to pass a bill incorporating the elements of Erin’s law – a national movement to get laws passed mandating child sexual assault prevention in the schools.
There are four bills similar to Erin’s law waiting in the wings, including one introduced by Presley’s boss. Erin’s law legislation almost got passed last year but got lost in the end-of-session chaos.
“It would kind of be shameful, or a little irresponsible for us not to get something done, something that’s so easy to get done,” said Presley. “It would be just sad if that couldn’t go.”
But on a ride up the elevator to the fifth floor of the Capitol, where the House and Senate Finance committee co-chairs reside – as well as the true power in the Legislature – Sen. Mike Dunleavy summed it up.
“It’s the budget. It’s all about the budget. The session is the budget,” Dunleavy said, as he rushed out the elevator, heading to a Senate Finance committee meeting.
Both the House and the Senate Republican majorities have prided themselves on cutting hundreds of millions of dollars from both the operating and capital budgets, yet there have been lots of closed-door discussions about how to get around drawing money from the Constitution Budget Reserve to cover the state’s budget gap. Legislative leaders have been combing through various accounts in hopes of finding dollars, even though the funds have been earmarked for other purposes.
One of the big dramas to play out is whether the Legislature will tap the CBR or not. It takes three-quarters majority in each house to do this. While that bar can be easily met in the Senate, it could be problematic in the House, where there are more Democrats, who say their vote will require at least two things: restoration of cuts to education funding and a vote on Medicaid expansion.
“The CBR draw is the first that we’ve seen in a long time, and that does force people to work together,” said Rep. Chris Tuck, the House Minority leader. “Will it happen in the next day or so? That is the question.”
Rep. Cathy Tilton has worked a number of sessions as a legislative aide, but this is her first as a lawmaker.
“The final stretch is so exciting. Things can change from moment to moment,” Tilton said. “I have several bills in play right now. I’m waiting to see how those come down in the final moments.”
“All the preparation for this 88th day is for this moment,” said Tuck, who might wind up missing out on the final votes, as he and his partner are expecting a baby any day now. “She’s been two centimeters dilated for about a week. She’s been having contractions every 20 minutes for a week now, She thinks the baby is waiting for me to come home.”
But Tuck was up at midnight, waiting for the birthing of the capital budget at a House Finance committee meeting, where Democrats had several amendments they wanted to include. Their hope was to restore funding for education, as well as take money out for the Knik Arm Bridge, the Juneau Access Road and Anchorage’s Bragaw extension.
By midnight, all of their amendments were shot down, but the capital budget passed out of committee, so it could be cued up for a vote on the House floor when Day 89 begins on Saturday. One of the bills on Erin’s law is on the floor schedule as well.
The post AKLeg Day 88: Race to the finish of session begins with drama, uncertainty appeared first on KTVA 11.