Budget presentation by Walker administration marked by lawmakers’ empty seats

JUNEAU — A day after Gov. Bill Walker pleaded with legislators to "work together" to advance state budget reforms, his administration's four-hour seminar on Alaska's deficit went largely unattended by lawmakers.

It's relatively rare for the administration to make its own presentations to the Legislature; lawmakers are more accustomed to questioning top officials at committee hearings.

Invitations to the forum were issued Tuesday morning. The presentations, at Centennial Hall Convention Center just down the hill from the Capitol, drew about 20 lawmakers, or one-third of the 60 members of the House and Senate.

More than a dozen belonged to the House's 22-member majority coalition — the group of lawmakers most closely aligned with Walker's deficit-reduction approach.

"We made it a priority for our caucus to be there," House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, said in an interview afterward. "We got the same notice as everybody else."

Republicans' attendance was thin, though a few members sent aides. Anchorage GOP Rep. Jennifer Johnston was the sole member of the 18-person House Republican minority sitting in the audience midway through the presentations.

And Sen. Anna MacKinnon, R-Eagle River, was the only member of the Senate's Republican-led majority to appear, and she left after an hour to return to the Capitol.

Walker himself didn't appear, either. He was on his way to Washington, D.C., to attend Donald Trump's presidential inauguration, said spokeswoman Katie Marquette.

MacKinnon said the administration's presentation was "really good," and explained her departure, and her colleagues' absence, by the fact that there were "competing events."

She was referring to a pair of hearings scheduled concurrently with the Walker administration's presentation — one at the seven-member House Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, and one at the five-member Senate Labor and Commerce Committee.

When a reporter stopped in on those meetings Thursday afternoon, only one additional lawmaker was around — Rep. Chris Birch, R-Anchorage, sitting in the audience of the Senate committee.

Others offered a range of explanations for their absences.

Fairbanks Republican Rep. Steve Thompson said he had to seal the deal on a used car — an $800 sedan.

"I don't feel like there's any disrespect there — I sure don't have any," he said in an interview, adding he planned to apologize to the governor for his absence. He noted one of his aides attended, and added: "I had to have some wheels."

Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla, a freshman in his third day in office, said he was still settling into his space in the Capitol.

He said he's heard Walker's presentations "several times before." In terms of his time, he added: "It's better to get situated."

The forum included a briefing by a state economist, information about the state's projected revenues from Revenue Commissioner Randy Hoffbeck, and a presentation by Pat Pitney, Walker's budget director.

Versions of the presentations have also been delivered at committee hearings this week. And Walker's administration gave similar briefings last year.

Republican Sen. Click Bishop of Fairbanks said he missed the forum because he was working instead on the state transportation committee's budget — and he added that he didn't need any more convincing about the seriousness of Alaska's financial problems.

"If you don't know what the problem is," he said, "you've got a problem."

Nathaniel Herz

Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He’s been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at ADN and Alaska Public Media. He’s reported around the state and loves cross-country skiing.