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Alaska Legislature

Alaska lawmakers say they’re still on track to finish soon

A legislative aide, reporter and lobbyist all check their phones while waiting for movement on the Alaska House’s capital budget proposal at the Alaska Capitol on Wednesday. From left, Mike Mason, press secretary for the House majority coalition, James Brooks of the Juneau Empire, and Ray Matiashowski, a lobbyist whose clients include Microsoft, the Alaska Library Association and the city and borough of Ketchikan. (Nathaniel Herz / ADN)

JUNEAU — Alaska lawmakers made little progress in public Wednesday on the major bills still waiting to pass, but legislative leaders said they remain on pace to finish their work in the next few days.

"Still on track," said House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham.

Two of the Legislature's three hearings scheduled for Wednesday were canceled, while a third — a House meeting on the Senate's proposed capital budget — was delayed more than four hours.

Lawmakers are expected to pass that capital budget and a separate annual operating budget before leaving Juneau for the summer. But the Republican-led Senate majority and the largely Democratic House majority each have their own favored programs and initiatives, and they're still sorting out competing versions of the budget bills that each chamber has advanced.

Gov. Bill Walker, with his power to veto legislation and individual budget line-items, is also in the mix; he's been pushing lawmakers to pass a package of crime bills and legislation to establish a framework for filling the state's huge deficit with investment earnings from the $65 billion Permanent Fund.

Lawmakers made major progress Tuesday toward the end of the session: Both chambers passed identical versions of Permanent Fund legislation, Senate Bill 26, and sent it to Walker's desk. The Senate, meanwhile, advanced its capital budget proposal and merged three of Walker's crime bills into a separate piece of legislation.

Their pace Wednesday was more subdued.

The one hearing that wasn't canceled — the House Finance Committee's meeting on the capital budget — was scheduled for 1:30 p.m.

A pair of lobbyists, Ray Matiashowski and Mark Hickey, peer at a newly released capital budget proposal from the Alaska House Finance Committee before a meeting at the state Capitol on Wednesday. (Nathaniel Herz / ADN)

It didn't begin until after 6 p.m., leaving lobbyists, lawmakers and reporters milling outside the fifth-floor committee room for hours. But House and Senate leaders said they were still holding closed-door negotiations to help advance important bills and hadn't experienced any major setbacks.

The 121-day constitutional deadline for lawmakers to finish their work is still a week away, and some legislators say they expect to be done before then.

"The Legislature is on track to conclude the people's business on schedule," Senate President Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, said in a prepared statement.

In the meantime, the House and Senate each passed two low-profile bills Wednesday.

The House passed Senate Bill 64, which relates to the sale of contaminated property, and House Bill 119, which clarifies accounting procedures for a state economic development entity, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority.

The Senate passed House Bill 56, which adds flexibility to a state loan program for commercial fishermen.

It also passed House Bill 151, which creates new training and workload standards for the state employees who work with foster children.

The state Office of Children's Services experienced a 50 percent spike in caseloads in the five years leading up to 2017, while its workforce did not keep up.

HB 151, sponsored by Anchorage Democratic Rep. Les Gara, budgets about $2.5 million a year — about $1 million of which is federal money — in an effort to make sure OCS workers get adequate training and don't have to work with an average of more than 13 families at once.

Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, speaks during a committee meeting last year.(Marc Lester / ADN)

The idea, Gara said, is to allow case workers to do "customer service instead of crisis management."

"Crisis management damages children," said Gara, who grew up as a foster child in New York.

Gara's legislation also adds new requirements that the state certify that it has tried to place foster children with family members or friends before turning to other options. And it gives foster parents more flexibility to allow children to participate in travel, sports, field trips and other activities — instead of forcing parents to call and get permission each time.

One other development at the Capitol on Wednesday: Fairbanks Democratic Rep. David Guttenberg, who's finishing his eighth two-year term, announced that he will not seek re-election.

Guttenberg, 67, made the announcement in a call to a meeting of his Fairbanks-based laborers union, where he got his start in politics.

"It's just the right time to give somebody else a shot," he said in an interview before the phone call. "I'm just going to put my feet up and enjoy life for a while."

Rep. David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks, talks with colleagues at the Capitol last year. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Guttenberg was taken to the hospital from the Capitol by ambulance earlier this year for what he described as a bad reaction to blood pressure medication.

But he stressed that he's not leaving because of any health problem, or because of any kind of scandal — a reference to the sexual harassment allegations that preceded the resignations of two of his House colleagues in the past few months.

Guttenberg said he doesn't want to try to anoint his own successor. But he said he expects someone — whom he wouldn't identify — to announce their candidacy to replace him in the near future.

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