House Finance introduces budget bill after majorities call own special session
Alaska legislators adjourned Thursday to end the special session called by Gov. Bill Walker, immediately called their own session and the House Finance Committee later introduced a budget bill now set for consideration Friday.
The vetoed portions of the operating budget Walker signed May 18 were packaged in new legislation, House Bill 2001, which was introduced to the House Finance Committee during a meeting after the new special session was called.
Combined, the partially funded HB 72 and HB 2001 are the equivalent of the full operating budget passed with minority objection on April 27.
It would require $2.1 billion to fund state agency operations for the 2016 fiscal year. Another $1 billion would be needed to cover debt service, fund capitalization and retirement accounts.
Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, discussed the possibility of gathering funds from all the available state savings accounts to pay for the $2.1 billion and get around a three-quarter majority Constitutional Budget Reserve vote.
“Most of those programs, whether it’s scholarships or Power Cost Equalization, we can still fund those they will just need to be funded next year,” Wilson said.
Exactly how much the state has available in its various fund and savings accounts was unknown in the meeting.
The House Finance Committee is scheduled to meet again Friday, at 10 a.m., and public testimony on the budget is set to be taken from 11 a.m., to 2 p.m., that day.
During a floor session held Thursday at the Anchorage Legislative Information Office, Anchorage Democrat Sen. Bill Wielechowski requested the Legislature reconvene Friday in Juneau, where the governor ordered the session be held.
“As much as I enjoy being in my hometown, Mr. President (Senate President Kevin Meyer), this session violates the Alaska Constitution,” Wielechowski said.
A May 18 legal opinion from Legislative Affairs Director Doug Gardner to Wielechowski declared that the Legislature must meet in Juneau to comply with Walker’s call to a special session, but allowed there may be a way around that order:
“A court would likely conclude that if the legislature wants to meet in special session in Anchorage, the legislature’s remedy it to adjourn sine die from the legislative session and convene its own special session in Anchorage. While it seems unlikely a court would invalidate the action of the legislature meeting under the governor’s special session proclamation in Anchorage instead of Juneau for the sole purpose of adjourning sine die, there is risk in doing so as described above.”
“Sine die” is a Latin expressing meaning “without a future date being designated (as for resumption).”
Wielechowski also noted that Democratic minority caucus members were not polled when the majority decided to call another session.
The Legislature did not take action on any of the three issues — the operating budget, Medicaid expansion and reform, and the sexual abuse prevention bill known as Erin’s Law — during the special session.
Walker, who signed a partially funded operating budget May 18 that would force layoffs for 15,000 state employees beginning at the start of the 2016 fiscal year on July 1, said that day he would continue to call special sessions until the budget is resolved.
Senate Majority Leader John Coghill, R-Fairbanks, called reconvening in Juneau “practically impractical,” because of travel and scheduling challenges and the fact that the Capitol is undergoing a major renovation.
During a House floor session later in the day, Rep. Sam Kito, D-Juneau, said there are adequate facilities in Juneau outside of the Capitol for legislators to use.
Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, said adjourning and reconvening is “disrespectful” to the office of the governor.
Anchorage Democrat Rep. Les Gara said calling a new session on the budget takes the focus off of the governor’s Medicaid legislation, which is stalled in the House Finance Committee.
There were 14 senators present for the Thursday floor session. The three Senate minority members present voted against adjourning; the motion passed 11-3. The vote in the House was 21-13 in favor of adjourning. Minority Democrats and Republican Reps. Cathy Muñoz of Juneau and Lora Reinbold of Eagle River voted against adjournment.
Reinbold was kicked out of the Majority caucus during the regular session after voting against the operating budget because she said it does not cut government spending enough.
Oral roll calls and votes were tallied by staff in the makeshift chamber rooms in the Anchorage LIO building. Legislators and staff passed microphones around during floor discussions.
“We have not completed our job. We should not be adjourning,” Wielechowski said.
The Legislature was assembled in Juneau when Walker called the 30-day special session April 28.
House minority Democrats have refused to vote for a roughly $3 billion draw on the Constitutional Budget Reserve to fund the 2016 budget, a state savings account that requires a three-quarter vote from each chamber to access. They are holding out for at least some of about $100 million in program funding cuts they want put back in the budget, along with the passage of Medicaid expansion, and have argued that the spending cuts they have proposed which include capping oil tax credits are greater than what’s been approved by the House and Senate majorities.
House minority members said during a May 20 press briefing that the Republican-led majority has refused to negotiate a budget deal.
The new special session could go until late June while state agencies prepare for a partial shutdown if a budget deal is not reached sooner.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].