One week down without much progress
JUNEAU — Legislators ended their first week of a special session May 24 with little progress in passing a state budget or bills relating to a restructuring of state finances, which are now mostly dependent on oil revenues and savings accounts.
The hallways of the state capitol are virtually empty with most lawmakers home for an extended break, which has now been extended through the Memorial Day weekend.
Special sessions last 30 days, so legislators have until June 17 to do their business or else Gov. Bill Walker will call another special session, which can also last 30 days.
Although the capitol hallways are quiet there are a few legislators around. The rules call for lawmakers to meet in session at least once every three days, so both the House and Senate have held “technical” sessions with just a handful of leaders present and minor procedural matters considered.
State budget deadlines are nearing, however. If no budget for fiscal year 2018, which begins July 1, has been approved by June 1, state personnel rules require the state administration to begin sending out “pink slips” to state workers, or notifications of possible layoffs if there is no approved budget by July 1.
This came near to happening last year, again with extended special sessions, when legislators jammed up over oil and gas tax legislation. Pink slips never went out last year, “although we came very close,” state budget director Pat Pitney said May 24.
“If we do it this year the notifications will be very broad, going to almost all state workers,” she said.
Essential public employees like state troopers, corrections officers and employees in state Pioneers Homes may be exempted from the notifications but the details of that haven’t been worked out yet, Pitney said.
If there is no budget approved by July 1 the state government has no authority to operate, she said. That means a government shutdown.
“We would be in uncharted territory,” Pitney said. “There are no statutes to guide us even for essential state services,” she said.
In his May 17 call for a special session the governor listed critical items including the state operating, capital and mental health budgets, which are separate appropriation measures, along with a bill restructuring use of Permanent Fund earnings and setting an appropriation limit, proposed state fuel tax increases, changes to oil and gas tax laws and tax credits, and a bill strengthening controls on dispensing of opioids, a powerful painkiller that is often abused.
When a regular session of the Legislature ends, as the 2017 session did on May 17, all bills not yet acted on remain in committee until the next regular session. When a special session is called the normal procedure is for bills being considered in the special session to be reintroduced.
In this instance, however, the governor’s listing of specific bills in his proclamation for the special session allows legislators to work on those bills in their latest, most current versions.
The exception to this is the governor’s call in the proclamation for a new “broad-based” tax. Because the state senate voted down HB 115, the House-passed bill that contained a state income tax, that bill no longer exists.
Walker is holding off on introducing a new broad-based tax, for now, to give the Legislature time to re-introduce its own proposal. If no proposal is forthcoming the governor said he will introduce a tax bill, and he has not yet said whether it will be an income tax or a state sales tax.
The sole action the Legislature has taken so far in the special session was the House approval May 22 of HB 159, the opioid control bill that is a priority for the governor.
The Senate has not yet approved this bill although the Senate Finance Committee did hold a hearing on its version of the legislation on May 23.
Versions of the operating budget, Permanent Fund and oil tax bills have passed both House and Senate and conference committees have been appointed for all three measures although the committees have not met.
No Senate conferees have been appointed for House Bill 111, the oil tax bill as of May 24.
House conferees were appointed earlier, consisting of Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage as chair, along with Reps. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, and Dave Talerico, R-Healy, as the other two members.
Conferees on the operating and mental health program budget bills, HB 57 and HB 59, which have passed both the House and Senate, include Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, as chair, along with Reps. Neal Foster, D-Nome and Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage.
Senators on the budget bills include Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, as chair, along with Sens. Anna MacKinnon, R-Eagle River, and Donny Olson, D-Nome.
On SB 26, the Permanent Fund restructuring bill, which includes a statutory spending limit in the Senate version that was stripped out by the House, Sen. MacKinnon is chair on the Senate side with other Hoffman and Dennis Egan, D-Juneau.
The state capital budget, SB 23, has passed the Senate but is still in the House Finance Committee. The governor has included it on his list for the special session. The governor’s proposal to increase state fuel taxes, in HB 60 and SB 25, are in the House and Senate Finance committees.
Because the capital budget and the fuel tax increase measures have not yet passed both bodies there is no conference committee on those bills.
Tim Bradner is co-publisher of Alaska Legislative Digest and a contributor to the Journal of Commerce. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.