Legislature misses deadlines, goes into overtime with education bill

Richard Mauer

JUNEAU -- So what is going on in the Capitol?

The Legislature missed all its deadlines as it continued to work in fits and starts -- mostly fits -- through Sunday night and deep into Monday morning.

The informal Friday deadline for adjournment, set by Senate President Charlie Huggins when hope still flourished back in January, was a distant memory. The Legislature slid past the official 90-day session limit when Sunday became Monday.

There was still no end in sight of the 28th Legislature when Huggins recessed the Senate at 4 a.m. Monday. What has emerged in the last couple weeks as the session's most contentious issue -- money and programs for education -- was the next item on the Senate agenda when leaders there and from the House huddled and decided it was too late to continue. From the procedural mistakes that had been cropping up once the Senate passed midnight, it appeared they were probably right.

Sen. Lesil McGuire, the Rules Committee chairwoman, said after the huddle broke up that the Senate would reconvene 1 p.m. Monday and take up the education bill.

The bill, House Bill 278, came over to the Senate after the House passed it 29-11 on April 7. But its now been through several different versions and will likely be amended more on the Senate floor Monday. If the Senate passes it, it would have to go back to the House for a reconciliation vote.

Under the deal reached by the House and Senate leaders, McGuire said, the House will immediately vote on whether to accept the Senate version. If the answer is no, as is likely, a House-Senate conference committee would be quickly convened. If the conference committee couldn't resolve the difference -- McGuire said the leaders expected the versions to be irreconcilable -- the House and Senate would appoint a free conference committee, which would have more authority to craft a completely new version acceptable to both bodies.

McGuire said the House was keeping the capital budget in its chamber and would use it as the vehicle to absorb whatever funding changes was called for in the education bill. If the conference committee version and the capital budget were accepted by House and Senate, the Legislature could wrap up and adjourn. That could happen Monday night, she said.

The Legislature was only officially extending its session a day, but could go another if it didn't finish its business Monday, McGuire said.

While the education bill was undergoes its revisions in the conference committee, the Legislature would probably take up other unfinished business, McGuire said.

But the Senate would not entertain the minimum wage bill passed by the House, she said. Strong opposition to the bill is coming from two sides in the Senate, she said -- conservatives who don't like the minimum wage at all, and advocates of the minimum wage who want to give voters the chance to pass it by way of a ballot initiative.

The Alaska Constitution forbids the Legislature from amending a ballot initiative for two years, but a Legislature-passed law can be amended any time. Supporters of the ballot initiative say the Republican-passed minimum wage bill in the House reminds them of the trick played in 2002. Then, the Legislature passed a minimum wage law that made a similar ballot issue redundant, kicking it off the ballot. The next year, the Legislature gutted the 2002 bill.

The session overtime already had people scrambling to change their flights. Alyse Galvin, one of the Anchorage parents advocating for more education funding, said she's already had to cancel four flights home and was about to cancel a fifth.

But the extension will also likely result in rescheduling the three ballot initiatives initially set for the August primary, but not the referendum to repeal Senate Bill 21, the tax break for the oil industry.

The change is likely to bring joy to opponents of the referendum in the oil industry and its support alliance. The initiatives -- minimum wage, marijuana legalization, and a measure against the proposed Pebble Mine -- would likely bring a surge of voters, many of whom could be expected to support the tax repeal.

It appears that those same voters now will be marching to the polls in November, with a possible spillover effect in the U.S. Senate race in which the Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat, will face fierce opposition from one of three Republicans in the August primary.

The date for the initiative would change because the Constitution says initiatives are voted in the first statewide ballot 120 days after the end of the regular legislative session, including extensions. The referendum, however, is under a different schedule and won't move.

Extensions themselves are also provided for in the Constitution. It allows the Legislature to go overtime for up to 10 days. A two-thirds vote is required for an extension, but that might not be necessary in the current case: the 90-day limit was imposed by voters in an initiative, and carries only the force of an ordinary law, which the Legislature can change.

The Alaska Constitution allows sessions to go for 120 days plus the 10-day extension. Voters approved the 90-day session in 2006. Courts have given the Legislature wide leeway in setting its own rules as long as they don't conflict with the Constitution.

Reach Richard Mauer at rmauer@adn.com or (907) 500-7388.


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