Lawmakers taking PFD show on the road in 2nd week of special session
State lawmakers enter their second week of the special session still split on where to meet, but with an ambitious agenda that has one finance committee scheduling a series of hearings throughout the state.
What began last month as a special session called by Gov. Mike Dunleavy to approve a $3,000 Permanent Fund dividend has taken on greater dynamics underscored by a $444 million budget vetoes and a failed effort to override those vetoes.
Lawmakers also learned that funds offering Alaska students college scholarships and energy assistance are among dozens scheduled to be transferred to a savings account unless 45 lawmakers back what’s known as a “reverse sweep” of these and the other funds.
All of this has had several lawmakers saying, “We’re not done yet."
With scant public discussions on a dividend amount so far, lawmakers also could not agree on where to meet. The House and Senate presiding officers along with a majority met in Juneau. House minority Republicans and some senators, however, met at Wasilla Middle School where Gov. Dunleavy ordered lawmakers to go.
It’s a dispute that underpins the growing web of differences that’s entangled the Legislature and the governor with some saying it’s the first difference that needs sorting before the other impasses to begin gaining clarity.
Those accounts usually undergo a “reverse sweep,” by a supermajority vote, but the Republican House minority held back the necessary votes to restore the funding.
That includes some funds historically not swept, like the Power Cost Equalization Fund, established in 2000 to help offset high energy costs in rural communities. The fund has about $1 billion in assets and helps more than 190 communities.
According to a letter from Alaska Attorney General Kevin Clarkson, the fund is subject to being swept, even as previous administrations have not done that.
House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, took offense to the sweep.
“It’s a slap in the face to rural Alaska,” he said. “It’s a slap in the face to the legacy of all the powerful Alaska Native leaders who have roamed the halls of the Legislature and who put blood, sweat and tears into putting a program together that would help make electricity more affordable.”
A new week begins with the House Finance Committee holding daily hearings House Bill 2001, which would pay Alaskans a $1,600 dividend this year.
But committee co-chair Neal Foster, D-Nome, wrote in a newsletter posted in the Nome Nugget newspaper.
“As the House Chairman of the State's Operating Budget, I was instructed by our majority to get a new appropriations bill through the Finance Committee. This new bill will restore all funding of all vetoed items.”
Lawmakers have long noted the option to restore funds through another appropriations bill could be pursued if they could not muster the necessary 45 override votes.
Foster freely admits Dunleavy could easily veto the funding again but adds he believes public support against the vetoes is ramping up.
Last week, the committee heard from business groups as well as a presentation reflection a meeting among high profile business leaders who collaborated on an op-ed, saying the cuts “go too far, too fast.”
The committee has hearings scheduled every day, starting with an 11 a.m. meeting in Anchorage Monday and up to five hours set aside for public testimony starting at 2 p.m.
Hearings will also be held Tuesday in Wasilla, not the middle school, but instead the legislative information office which is set up for teleconferencing and historical recording.
The committee has also scheduled a Fairbanks hearing on Wednesday before returning to the capital on Thursday.
Lawmakers still looking to treat the middle school as the session’s venue will be there Monday, Wednesday and Friday, said Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer.
Hughes said even as those reporting to Wasilla did not have quorum to conduct any formal state business, the time was not wasted and she still considers meetings in Juneau unconstitutional.
“I feel like we had a chance to give Alaskans from numerous communities around the state direct access to us, people that could not make the trip to Juneau, couldn't afford the trip to Juneau,” Hughes said. “We’ve heard from people of different backgrounds, different positions.”
Hughes said the venue differences remind her of how Vietnam peace talk efforts got off to a rocky start because for months various sides could not even agree on a seating arrangement – and, until they did, the war raged on.
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