Alaska session expected to run long with big issues pending
By BECKY BOHRER
Alaska legislative leaders on Friday said they plan to work beyond the voter-approved 90-day session limit because the state budget and elements of a deficit-reduction plan are unresolved.
The session is scheduled to end April 16, but House and Senate leaders expect to miss that deadline. The constitution allows for regular sessions of up to 121 days, with an option to extend for up to 10 more.
Lawmakers haven’t always held fast to the 90-day limit, in effect since 2008. In just the last three years, they’ve extended, and, in the case of 2015 and 2016, with budget issues in the fore, still needed special sessions to complete their work.
House Speaker Bryce Edgmon said that given the magnitude of issues being weighed this session, his members want to take the time to do things right.
The main focus all session has been on how best to tackle a multibillion-dollar budget deficit that has persisted amid chronically low oil prices. The state has been using savings to get by.
Gov. Bill Walker has been calling for a fiscal plan, and there appears to be general agreement around making structured draws from Alaska oil-wealth fund earnings to help pay the state’s bills.
That once would have been seen as political suicide because of its impact on the annual dividend Alaskans receive from the fund. Legislation currently under consideration would initially limit dividends — to $1,000 or $1,250, depending on the bill — and then change how the dividends are calculated.
Senate Majority Leader Peter Micciche, a Soldotna Republican, has said he’d see the session as a success if a permanent fund bill and state operating and infrastructure bills passed. Walker and House majority leaders have argued for a fuller plan.
The House also is considering reinstituting a personal income tax and overhauling the oil tax and credit system. One tax option would establish a tax on income to help fund education.
Leaders of the Republican-led Senate have shown little interest in taxes.
Cuts proposed by the Senate to areas like K-12 education and the University of Alaska system have been met with concern by members of House majority, which is composed largely of Democrats.
Edgmon, a Dillingham Democrat, told reporters that legislators are taking "legacy votes."
"These are tough votes. We saw what happened in the Senate" on Thursday, Edgmon said.
On Thursday, Republican Sen. Mike Dunleavy of Wasilla announced he was leaving the Senate majority, dissatisfied that more had not been cut from the budget and unsupportive of a dividend change.
It was not immediately clear what consequences Dunleavy might face for leaving the caucus.
Being part of the majority confers certain benefits, including staffing levels and committee assignments and chairmanships. As part of the majority, Dunleavy has served on the Senate Finance Committee and chaired the Senate State Affairs Committee.
Senate President Pete Kelly, a Fairbanks Republican, said Dunleavy would be treated fairly and as a friend. But that doesn’t mean there will be no repercussions, he told reporters.