Seaton kills hundreds of Republican budget amendments

  • Co-chairmen of the House Finance Committee Rep. Neal Foster, D-Nome, standing, and Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, are seen in the House chambers on Feb. 10 in Juneau. Seaton, who switched sides to join a Democrat-led majority this session, killed hundreds of minority Republican budget amendments in the Finance Committee on March 7 and has also angered minority members with a budget plan relying entirely on Permanent Fund earnings to fill the budget deficit. (Photo/Michael Penn/Juneau Empire)

JUNEAU — House Finance Committee members will be working through the weekend in hopes of finalizing a fiscal year 2018 state operating budget, but a record 320 amendments put forth mostly by Republican minority members has slowed things down.

The new minority of 18 Republicans — who were in charge of things in the last Legislature — still feel stung over that, and they are also steamed up over an unusual maneuver by Finance Co-Chair Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, and other majority members on the Finance committee to fund a projected $2.7 billion fiscal year 2018 deficit with money from the Permanent Fund’s Earnings Reserve account rather than the Constitutional Budget Reserve, which would require a three-quarters majority to access compared to a simple majority to access the Fund earnings.

Seaton is part of a coalition formed by Democrats and a handful of dissident Republicans, including him, to form a majority with 22 votes to control the 40-member state House.

Withdrawing money from the CBR would require votes from minority members and would give them bargaining leverage.

In contrast, withdrawing funds from the Earnings Reserve, which now holds about $10 billion, takes a simple majority vote in the House, or 21 votes.

Last year the shoe was on the other foot with the Democrats, then in the minority, using their CBR clout to extract concessions from the Republican-led majority. Now that they’re in charge, Democrats in the majority don’t want to hand the CBR advantage over to the minority again.

In any event, the delay in getting the operating budget through the Finance committee could jeopardize House leaders’ goal of delivering a budget to the Senate by mid-March, a traditional date.

“I’ve worked in this (capitol) building since the 1990s as staff and as a legislator for the past 10 years, but I’ve never seen so many amendments offered at the Finance committee,” House Speaker Bryce Edgmon said in a March 7 briefing with reporters.

Edgmon didn’t accuse the Republican minority of being obstructionist and slow-rolling the majority but he said the sheer number of amendments being offered consumes time and money, “not just our time in debating each one but that of legislative attorneys in drafting them.”

Many of the amendments are being offered by Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, a member of the Finance committee.

Edgmon said the extra time being taken in the Finance committee could require the House to begin Saturday and Sunday floor sessions sooner than expected in an effort to keep the House on schedule for an adjournment in 90 days, although achieving that prospect looks increasingly unlikely.

In one new budget development, the Finance committee backed off from a controversial proposal to cut state funds to support municipal debt service on school bonds.

Seaton made the amendment in committee the previous week to reduce state general fund support for school debt by 50 percent, or about $48 million.

After taking heat from constituents in public hearings last weekend, however, the committee backed off with a vote to restore the money March 7.

Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, made the motion to rescind the cut. Because the bond payments must be made, municipalities would have had to make up the difference, and Gara said the state’s largest cities, Anchorage and Fairbanks, have caps on local taxes.

Those cities would have had to cut essential services, like police, to come up with the money, Gara said in a discussion at the Finance Committee.

Restoring those funds, however, could throw a wrench in the House majority’s hopes of having a budget lower than that introduced by Gov. Bill Walker.

There are no budget totals available yet for the operating budget bill now before the committee but Seaton said in the March 7 briefing that the proposed plan was about $50 million below the governor’s proposal and about $100 million below last year’s operating budget of about $4.2 billion.

If the $48 million in school debt payments are restored it would put the House Finance operating budget, as it stands now, about on par with Walker’s budget in total dollars, although the amounts appropriated for agencies and programs would differ.

The numbers are undesignated general funds, or UGF, which are typically used in comparing changes in spending. Other funds in the budget, such as federal funds or restricted state funds, are not included.

Meanwhile, the Senate’s budget subcommittees are working to finish up their own spending plans for agencies and programs. Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, is supervising work on the Senate’s operating budget, and has set a target for 5 percent cuts to UGF money for four of the largest state agencies, the state Transportation, Health and Social Services and Education departments, and the University of Alaska.

The Senate is working on a plan for $750 million to be cut from the budget over three years with about $300 million trimmed this year.

Tim Bradner is co-publisher of Alaska Legislative Digest and a contributor to the Journal of Commerce. He can be reached at [email protected].

03/09/2017 - 9:46am