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Alaska Legislature

In public, Alaska lawmakers have been making scant progress. But ‘we’re not stalled,’ says House speaker.

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: April 30, 2018
  • Published April 29, 2018

The Alaska State Capitol in Juneau. (Marc Lester / ADN)

JUNEAU — Alaska legislative leaders say they're still holding fruitful meetings in private and hope to finish their annual session soon, even after a week in which nearly all their key bills stayed stuck in place.

"Things are not stalled," House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, said in a brief interview Sunday. "Productive conversations are continuing."

The Legislature begins its third week of overtime Monday, which is its 105th day of work this year.

Alaska House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham (Nathaniel Herz / ADN)

A 2006 citizens initiative limited the length of annual sessions to 90 days. But the Alaska Constitution allows lawmakers to continue for an extra month, up to 121 days.

The Legislature's focus this year has been on the state's annual operating budget, and on legislation to convert the $65 billion Permanent Fund into a sort of endowment to help fill Alaska's $2.5 billion deficit.

But the Permanent Fund plan has proven contentious because of the way it could reduce the size of Alaskans' annual dividend checks.

Senate Bill 26, the leading Permanent Fund-related proposal, has languished in a joint House-Senate conference committee for the past year, where legislative leaders have been trying to reconcile different versions of the bill passed by each chamber.

That conference committee showed its first signs of life again at an April 21 meeting. There, members agreed to ask the full House and Senate for flexibility to negotiate specific aspects of their competing bills — including the size of the annual withdrawal from the Permanent Fund and how the cash would be split between dividends and government.

But those negotiations take place in private. And the results of negotiation sessions over the past week — if any took place — have not been made public.

A Saturday meeting of the conference committee was canceled; another has been scheduled for Monday afternoon.

The state's annual operating budget proposal has also been stuck in a conference committee, which has not met since April 19.

Another high-profile bill from Gov. Bill Walker, to allow the state to borrow money to pay cash tax credits to small oil companies, has yet to receive a vote in the House or Senate. The state capital budget also hasn't been passed by either chamber.

The finance committees in the House and Senate held hearings on the tax credit legislation and the capital budget in the past week. And it's not unusual for important bills to be delayed at the end of session as lawmakers negotiate all the different pieces of what they call the "adjournment plan."

But some legislators said they're getting impatient with what they describe as their plodding pace of work in Juneau.

Nikiski Republican Rep. Mike Chenault, a former House speaker, posted a photo to Facebook on Saturday of what appeared to be a drowning cat, writing that lawmakers are "treading water at this point."

Eagle River Republican Rep. Dan Saddler sits in his office Sunday. (Nathaniel Herz / ADN)

He pointed out that Saturday's House calendar included debate on legislation to declare a "sobriety awareness month" and a "year of innovation," as well as a bill to clarify that parents who choose to keep children conceived through rape can cut ties with the rapist, as long as a judge approves.

"We've not been working very hard on the floor. We're not moving fast towards anything," Eagle River Republican Rep. Dan Saddler said in an interview Sunday at his Capitol office, where he was working on a constituent newsletter.

But leaders in the House's largely-Democratic majority and the Senate's mostly-Republican majority said they're still holding collaborative meetings — including one that took place Sunday afternoon.

"The process is working how it should," said Eagle River Republican Sen. Anna MacKinnon, a member of Senate leadership. "It is fair to be frustrated as the general public, as the senators and the representatives are; all of us would have liked to have been done in 90 days. The problem is that each body works differently and at different paces."

Eagle River Republican Sen. Anna MacKinnon (Nathaniel Herz / ADN)

Legislative leaders have dropped few hints about the status of their negotiations; the House and Senate majorities' weekly press conferences have been canceled since the 90th day of the session. That's in contrast to the past three years, when the Legislature has sometimes descended into gridlock and public sniping in its end-of-session debate.

Some lawmakers said that the relative quiet is a good sign.

"Nobody's making hard demands," said Nome Democratic Rep. Neal Foster, a member of House leadership. "I think there's a lot of compromise right now."

At least one legislator, Anchorage Democratic Rep. Les Gara, was optimistic enough Sunday to clean his desk and pack his car halfway.

"Just in case all the calmer heads prevail and we can end this legislative session soon," he wrote in a Facebook post, "with an Alaska that is better than we found it."

Note: This article has been edited to reflect that a quote attributed to Eagle River Rep. Dan Saddler — "It's pointless" — referred to a specific legislative practice and not to general legislative progress. It has been deleted.

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