Legislature in slow motion Friday as adjournment date looms
JUNEAU — Legislators are still hoping to get out of Juneau this weekend but the pile of work yet to be done raised doubts Friday morning as to whether that is possible. The official adjournment date is Sunday, April 20, but House and Senate leaders were hoping to leave town Friday night to be home on Easter.
That’s now virtually impossible — things seemed in slow motion Friday in the state capitol — and it looks now that the session may roll on through Saturday and into Sunday.
The adjournment date is set by statute and there are provisions where legislators can extend the session, but it’s also possible to just continue on late Sunday past midnight for a few hours.
It’s happened before, and there were no legal challenges to bills passed after the midnight deadline.
As of mid-day, Friday all the big issues were still up in the air. The House Finance Committee is due to consider proposed changes to Senate Bill 138, a priority bill that would allow the state to negotiate a financial participation in a large North Slope gas project.
Assuming the bill is passed out of committee and passes the full House, the Senate must still concur in changes. If there are disagreements a conference committee would have to be appointed to iron them out.
The gas pipeline bill, introduced the governor, is one of the major issues of the 2014 session.
The governor’s education bill, House Bill 278, is another priority. That has passed the House and is pending in the Senate Finance Committee. Members of that committee have been working behind closed doors on changes but a proposed substitute bill had not appeared as of mid-day Friday.
The bill makes a number of education reform changes proposed by the governor and also allows some increased funding for schools. The House added more money than the governor had proposed and that is expected to be upheld by the Senate, but there are other, controversial changes proposed by the House, such as an increase in the years, from three to five, required for teachers in urban schools to gain tenure. Rural teachers could still gain tenure in three years.
There isn’t much known also about the status of the capital budget, which has passed the Senate and is now in House Finance Committee. House members are discussing the projects they would like to add to the Senate bill but the details of those are still unknown.
Meanwhile the conference committee on the state operating budget is in slow motion. It met early in the week but meetings set for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday were cancelled. The committee, which will iron out differences between versions of the operating budget, is now scheduled to meet late Friday.
Other important bills are in limbo, too. One is a major change in the way workers’ compensation medical fees would be paid. House Bill 316 has passes the House but is also in Senate Finance.
Meanwhile, a bill changing the funding structure for a major Knik Arm bridge project, HB 23, has passed both the House and Senate but the Senate changes must be concurred in by the House.
Since that bill, although it originated in the House, is a priority for Senate President Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, it is likely being held as end-of-session “trading stock” by the House leaders, to get the Senate to agree to certain House priorities.
One of those is a controversial minimum wage bill, HB 384, that passed the House and is now in the Senate. If the bill passes it would remove a pending voter initiative for a higher minimum wage from the August primary election.
Critics charge that is a ploy to get the wage initiative, which will attract a lot of organized labor voters, off the ballot so that it would be easier to defeat another initiative, a repeal of Senate Bill 21, the oil tax reform bill passed last year.
If the session goes past the April 20 deadline, however, it may accomplish the same thing by pushing the wage initiative, a marijuana-legalization initiative and a Pebble mine initiative, from the August to November general election ballot.
Alaska House passes gov's pension plan
JUNEAU (AP) — The Alaska House has passed Gov. Sean Parnell's plan for taking $3 billion from savings to address the state's unfunded pension obligation.
Lawmakers rejected a proposed amendment to tighten language to fix annual payments to the teachers' and public employees' retirement system at $343 million and $157 million, respectively. But Rep. Cathy Munoz said that language took away some flexibility. The bill calls for payments up to those amounts.
Another proposal, to remove the specific annual payments altogether, was withdrawn. Rep. Charisse Millett said she was leery of putting a dollar amount in statute, given the state's tough budget outlook, and wanted to at least have the conversation.
HB 385 passed 38-2.
It now goes to the Senate, where Finance Committee members have been studying different possible approaches to the issue.