Sparks set to fly over gasline and budgets

JUNEAU — It may be a wild finish for the 2015 legislative session. Things could really blow up, in fact.

Lawmakers are set to finish at midnight on April 19, the 90th day and the required adjournment date under state law, but last-minute tangles could push the ending into Monday or beyond.

That happened last year when the Legislature went in overtime for several days to work out problems on school funding. The absolute limit is 120 days, required by the state Constitution.

There are plenty of things that may cause a blow up on April 19.

Two are Medicaid and a possible veto by Gov. Bill Walker of a bill, House Bill 132, which limits him from spending money on a state-led natural gas pipeline. A bill making needed changes for state aid to the Interior Energy Project is in the mix, too.

The Interior energy bill, House Bill 105 and Senate Bill 50, are priorities for the governor and because of that have been slow-tracked and heavily amended in the Legislature.

Other administration bills, like a measure on state timber sales, are also on the slow track, although things can change fast in the final days of the session.

The big blowup could come over confirmations of the governor’s appointees including all of his commissioners, which is an issue now related to the possible veto of HB 132.

A signal that something is afoot came April 13 when House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, called Senate President Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, to ask to have the joint session for confirmations, then scheduled for April 17, reset.

There is no new time for the joint session, however, at least as of April 15. Most thinking in the capitol building is that Chenault and Meyer will wait until Saturday afternoon April 18, the deadline for Walker to veto HB 132.

The Speaker and the President will then work to line up votes for a veto override. Forty are needed and they appear to be two short given the pattern of House and Senate floor votes when HB 132 passed those bodies.

If the veto override comes up short, legislators may take vengeance by failing to approve several of Walker’s appointments. They can do that simply by not putting names forward during the joint session or by actually voting them down.

The belief among many in the capitol is that the confirmation automatically fails, on all appointees, if the Legislature adjourns the regular session without holding the vote.

However, this is uncertain legal territory. The state Constitution is silent in this area only to say that appointments must be confirmed by “the Legislature.” A Legislature spans two years during which sessions are held, and technically when legislators gavel out at the end of a session they simply take a recess.

If the appointment is not confirmed by the end of the two-year Legislature the Constitution seems more clear.

The stakes are big, because if an appointee is rejected in a vote the jobs ends for the person appointed and the governor cannot reappoint them. However, if legislators simply don’t vote, there would be some who interpret the law that the appointee can remain, at least for the two-year period.

If commissioners are rejected it could disrupt ongoing operations in agencies because temporary replacements will have be quickly named.

It’s not known for sure that HB 132 is the sole cause of the confirmation delay, but it is surely one of the issues involved.

“It’s likely that it is part of the overall adjournment negotiations,” said Sen. Berta Gardiner, D-Anchorage, the Senate Minority Leader.

Other issues are likely in the tangle, she said in a briefing by Senate Democrats on April 15.

“It’s all in the stew pot. We’ll have to see what comes out,” she said.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, thinks it’s a terrible idea from just a process point of view.

“I thought a Friday vote (the original date) was really late. Confirmation joint sessions can take a great deal of time because there’s often extended debate. Typically this is a week or two before adjournment. The last day is complicated by approvals of the operating and capital budgets and final bills, and to push this into it is a terrible idea,” Wielechowski said.

Meanwhile, the steam is building on Medicaid, too. Senate Republicans are digging in on their resistance to Medicaid expansion, holding firm on “reform first, expand later” strategy.

The governor, and Democrats in the Legislature, say it’s best to do both together. That’s partly because the health care provider community, which must cooperate in and even lead the “reform” program, has incentives to do that because they see expansion as helping them overcome a huge financial burden of uncompensated care.

Hospitals in Alaska must absorb about $92 million a year in write-offs and nonprofit primary health care providers who are required to care for people regardless of ability to pay have an additional $22 million in losses.

 The losses are mainly for medical service to lower-income people who do not have health coverage and are not eligible under the current Medicaid program. An expanded program would extend health coverage to 25,000 to 40,000 Alaskans who currently do not have coverage.

However, Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, said he thinks it wouldn’t hurt to have all the Medicaid bills pending including SB 74, his own reform proposal, held over the summer for more study. Sen. John Coghill, R-Fairbanks, the Senate Majority Leader, said it’s widely acknowledged that the current Medicaid system is broken and needs to be fixed before it is expanded.

However, the stakes on Medicaid could get big before adjournment. That’s because Republican leaders in the House need the cooperation of the House Democrats to get a needed three-quarters vote for a draw from the Constitutional Budget Reserve to fund the budget.

A withdrawal takes three fourths of both the House and Senate, according to the state Constitution. The Senate Republican-led Majority has enough votes, but the House Republican majority is short.

Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, the House Minority Leader, said Medicaid expansion, smaller cuts to education and restoration of some funds for the state ferry system is on the list of demands for the Democrats.

Meanwhile, a House-Senate conference committee is working through different versions of the state operating budget passed by each body. It may be soon resolved but a big issue in the Senate operating budget is a decision by that body not to fund raises agreed on in public employee union contracts that are in effect.

All labor contracts are subject to appropriations by the Legislature but while lawmakers have voted before not to approve new contracts, and to send negotiators back to the bargaining table, a decision not to fund terms agreed on in the middle of a multi-year contract is unprecedented, according to Don Etheridge, lobbyist in Juneau for the AFL-CIO.

Most of the contracts are for three years and have agreed-on cost-of-living increases of 1 percent in each of the first two years and 2.5 percent in the third year, Etheridge said.

When the dust settles on the budget negotiations there may also be efforts to roll back health benefits for public employees, sources in the public employee unions said.

On the state capital budget, which is a shadow of itself just two years ago, one issue is the Senate’s deletion of an $8 million appropriation to fund continued construction of a new engineering building at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The building is only partly finished and the $8 million appropriated this year would allow more work to be done, but still not finish it.

The university is meanwhile working with private donors to fund part of the completion.

Updated: 
11/20/2016 - 8:07am

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