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Alaska Legislature

From crime laws to construction spending, Alaska lawmakers did a lot this week. Here’s what you missed.

The Alaska Capitol on Friday, where state lawmakers are hoping to adjourn their annual session within 48 hours. (Nathaniel Herz / ADN)

JUNEAU — Alaska lawmakers, for now, appear to be cruising toward an unusually harmonious end to their annual session within the next 48 hours.

Many details still need to be ironed out, but legislative leaders say they hope to adjourn Saturday.

Lawmakers advanced a bevy of important bills late this week, with major implications for important government programs and individual Alaskans — proposals that take on crime, health care and schools.

Here are some of the high points.

Operating budget

A committee of House-Senate leaders announced a deal Thursday on the state's annual budget, which is $5.4 billion in unrestricted state general funds and $10.4 billion when federal cash is included.

The agreement settles an array of differences between competing spending proposals advanced by the House's largely-Democratic majority caucus, which generally favors higher spending levels, and the Senate's mostly-Republican majority.

The deal gives the state university system a $10 million increase, or about 3 percent, from the current year, a figure that's between the two numbers approved by the House and Senate.

It includes many of the new public safety jobs that Gov. Bill Walker's administration wants to create, including positions for prosecutors, sex crime investigators and an aircraft pilot.

It pays for 20 new positions in the state health department to help tackle a backlog of applications for assistance programs like Medicaid and food stamps. That move follows a scathing report released this week that said the department isn't complying with state law that requires it to process applications within a certain amount of time.

The deal rejects a request by Walker's administration involving the state-owned corporation charged with developing the proposed 800-mile natural gas pipeline from the North Slope.

Walker's administration asked legislators for power to spend money that the corporation raises from outside investors, if it can find any to put up the cash. But Senate majority members said they were skeptical about ceding control of the project to unidentified investors.

Lawmakers did allow the corporation to transfer $12 million between two different accounts, as it requested, and its chief executive, Keith Meyer, issued a prepared statement saying the corporation would continue to advance the project.

The operating budget deal between the House and Senate has the approval of the conference committee of legislative leaders who negotiated it. But it's not final: It still must clear the full House and Senate.

A 'poison pill' that could over-draw Permanent Fund?

Each chamber must secure a three-fourths majority vote in order to fill the operating budget's deficit of roughly $700 million with money from the state's main savings account, the Constitutional Budget Reserve.

That account is projected to hold $2.5 billion at the start of the next fiscal year July 1, according to the Legislature's budget analysts.

The Senate majority claims 13 of the chamber's 20 members, while the House majority has 22 of the chamber's 40 members, meaning that both will need votes from minority members to access the savings account.

The conference committee of legislative leaders, at their final meeting Thursday, added budget language designed to encourage minority members to go along: The language says that without the three-fourths majorities, the $700 million to fill the deficit will come from the Permanent Fund's investment earnings account, which is available by a simple majority vote.

Rep. Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage, talks with Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski on the House floor last year. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Such a withdrawal would be on top of the $2.7 billion already expected to be pulled from the fund for government programs and Alaskans' annual dividends payments. The $2.7 billion equates to 5.25 percent of the fund's value over the past several years, which lawmakers have agreed is the maximum sustainable amount that can be taken from the fund each year.

By using the Permanent Fund as a backstop, the new language amounts to a "poison pill," said Anchorage Rep. Charisse Millett, the leader of the all-Republican House minority.

It means members of her caucus must choose between voting to use the normal savings account and endorsing a budget they think is too large — or refusing to vote for it, which would result in a larger withdrawal from the Permanent Fund, said Millett.

"That forces us to choose between bad and worse," she said.

Capital budget

The House Finance Committee, meanwhile, on Wednesday unveiled a proposed $1.5 billion capital budget, $280 million of which is unrestricted state general funds.

Among the proposal's most controversial items is $25 million for a pair of proposed state megaprojects thought to be defunct: the bridge from Anchorage across the Knik Arm and the plan to extend Juneau's roads closer to the rest of the nation's road system.

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

Walker announced in 2016 that he was shutting down work on the billion-dollar Knik Arm bridge and the $600 million Juneau Access project. Much of the cash for those projects could have come from the federal government, but Walker said they didn't make sense given the state's huge deficit.

Backers of the projects, both inside and outside the Legislature, haven't stopped pushing for them. Supporters of the Juneau road project have been running radio ads and recently commissioned a poll.

The Republican-led Senate majority, whose members have been more supportive of big infrastructure projects, inserted the cash in its capital budget proposal first. The largely-Democratic House majority, whose members have been skeptical of megaprojects, left the money intact in their rewritten draft of the proposal unveiled Wednesday.

Like the operating budget, the capital budget proposal isn't final.

House Finance Committee members were still debating amendments Friday evening; when they're done, the spending bill will move to the House floor for a vote by all 40 members. The Senate then must agree on any House changes to their draft of the plan.

Among the amendments sponsored by majority members that are expected to pass in the House Finance Committee:

• Adding $20 million, or slightly less than 2 percent, to spending on Alaska's public schools. The increase would be a one-time grant, and slightly less than the permanent, $100 boost to the state's per-student spending formula that many House majority members have pushed. But a separate bill already passed by the Legislature allows for a $30 million increase the following year.

• $48 million to keep the Medicaid health-care program for the poor and disabled from running out of cash before the end of the state's fiscal year June 30. Walker's administration has been warning that it faces a shortfall and that without the cash, it would have to stop making payments to doctors, hospitals and other organizations until the operating budget takes effect July 1.

Eagle River Republican Sen. Anna MacKinnon stands during a break from a Senate floor session last month. (Nathaniel Herz / ADN)

• $7 million for maintenance, renovation and repairs at the state university system.

• $20 million to help pay for reconstruction of Anchorage's port.

Asked whether the Senate is likely to go along with the House's additions, one Senate leader, Republican Anna MacKinnon of Eagle River responded: "I don't think that there's total agreement on that yet."

Crime bill

The state Senate on Thursday unanimously passed a wide-ranging, rewritten House bill aimed at responding to Alaskans' recent outcry over rising crime, particularly in Anchorage. The House approved the rewrite in its own vote Friday.

House Bill 312, originally sponsored by Anchorage Democratic Rep. Matt Claman, started as a narrow proposal to make it easier for police to arrest people accused of assaulting medical workers — and to toughen penalties.

Before passing it, a Senate committee opened up the legislation and crammed in three other crime-fighting ideas that previously were standalone bills sponsored by Walker.

One would give the attorney general authority to restrict new types of illicit drugs — a step that otherwise requires legislative action. Another boosts fees paid by people convicted of crimes.

The third bill was a high-profile proposal to fix what Walker's administration says is a loophole opened by the 2016 criminal justice overhaul law, Senate Bill 91.

That bill forced judges to release certain suspects from jail while they await trial, even if they have long out-of-state criminal records. Walker's proposal, which was included in HB 312, will change the state system for setting bail so that it accounts for out-of-state criminal history.

During the Senate's floor debate Thursday, members also approved an amendment to undo other provisions of SB 91, with the effect of giving judges more flexibility to hold in jail, before trial, people who are accused of certain crimes.

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