Alaska lawmakers trickle back to Juneau, but budget solution still seems far off

JUNEAU — Lawmakers arrived back in Juneau Monday for a slow start to the special session on budget and financial legislation called by Gov. Bill Walker.

About three-fourths of the members of each chamber showed up for brief floor sessions Monday. The Senate Finance Committee's hearing in the afternoon — the only one scheduled for the day — was canceled.

Even the legislators who attended the sessions didn't seem happy to be there: The only speech during the House's brief floor session Monday was from Rep. Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks, who gave a "shout-out" to his wife on their seventh wedding anniversary.

"I'd much rather be with you right now than here," said Thompson, who got a hearty round of applause from his colleagues.

Lawmakers finished their regular session last week without a budget for the state's next financial year, which starts July 1, after hitting a 121-day deadline set in the state Constitution.

The Legislature's 90-day deadline, which came and went in mid-April, was set in a 2006 citizens initiative. And since it's a law and the Legislature writes laws, lawmakers are free to disregard it.

Legislative leaders said they hope to pass a budget in the special session before June 1, which is when the Walker administration plans to send state employees 30-day warnings of potential layoffs. Those warnings, however, will be printed this week, and lawmakers acknowledged that the June 1 goal could be wishful thinking.

"I will be cautiously optimistic that we will be done by then," House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, said in an interview Monday.

Walker's special session call was already expansive when he issued it last week. It includes operating and construction budget bills, plus legislation to reduce Alaska's multibillion-dollar budget deficit by assessing new and increased taxes, as well as by restructuring the Permanent Fund to help pay for state services.

Walker's agenda also contains four bills that failed to get to votes during the regular session, on insurance, health care, foster care and adoptions. On Monday, Walker added one more measure, his 11th — another bill from the regular session that creates a loan fund for oil and gas development under the umbrella of a state economic development corporation, AIDEA.

Two of the bills were introduced Monday. One is a bill to guarantee health coverage for spouses and children of police and firefighters who are killed in action; the other is an omnibus bill combining tax measures that Walker introduced separately during the regular session.

The rest of the bills on Walker's call are expected to be resurrected from versions that died last week at the end of the regular session, a move that lawmakers can authorize by passing a resolution.

In the House, the finance committee plans to start work Tuesday morning on Walker's new omnibus tax legislation — which, Chenault said, may not stay as one bill.

In the afternoon, the finance committee will hold a hearing on the regular session version of Walker's Permanent Fund legislation.

The Senate, meanwhile, won't start work on the tax legislation until Wednesday, when it will be heard in the Labor and Commerce Committee chaired by Mia Costello, R-Anchorage. Senate President Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, told reporters that his chamber was waiting until Wednesday because it hasn't been able to coordinate space for committees in the Bill Ray Center, where lawmakers are meeting while the Capitol undergoes renovations.

Like Chenault, Meyer said he hopes lawmakers can pass a budget by June 1, and he said it's the Senate's preference to bring all the legislation to an up-or-down floor vote. But, he added, "we're only one body of four."

The other three bodies, Meyer said, are Walker and the two caucuses in the House — the Republican-led majority and the Democratic minority.

House Democrats' votes are likely needed to pass a state budget because an $8 billion state savings account, the Constitutional Budget Reserve, requires a three-fourths vote to tap. The House minority is 13 members in the 40-member chamber, while Meyer's caucus controls 16 seats in the 20-member Senate and doesn't have to contend with the four-member minority.

Meyer, in a Sunday opinion piece in Alaska Dispatch News, blamed the House minority for the Legislature's failure to pass a budget by saying the Democrats gave the majorities a "new list of demands" with hours to go before last week's deadline.

"We can move pretty quick and pretty fast and will, and want to. But I can't control the requests that the House minority's making to get their three-quarter vote," Meyer told reporters Monday before an aide cut off further questions.

House minority leader Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, said Monday that his members had been unwilling to sign off on a budget proposal while under pressure last week, on the night of the deadline. But he added that his caucus had been negotiating an extension of the deadline, allowed with a two-thirds vote of both chambers, when the Senate scuttled those talks by voting to end the regular session. (Those negotiations were taking place after the House minority had already taken one vote against an extension, which Republicans were hoping Tuck's caucus would subsequently reverse.)

Tuck confirmed that Republicans had given House minority members a budget offer in the range of $35 million for Democratic priorities — a figure reported by the Alaska Republican Party Monday in its weekly newsletter — in addition to restoring other cuts proposed by the majorities in areas like education.

But the minority wouldn't agree to the offer on the spot, said Tuck and one of his colleagues, Rep. Adam Wool, D-Fairbanks.

"It came in at the 11th hour of the 11th day," Wool said. "You can't just pull it out at the last second and say, 'Decide, decide, decide.'"