JUNEAU — Members of the Republican minority in the Alaska House of Representatives refused to vote on some of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed cuts to K-12 education Monday, walking out of a budget subcommittee meeting rather than indicate their preferences.
In their absence, the remaining members of the committee rejected the governor’s cuts to several education programs.
The minority members, Rep. Josh Revak, R-Anchorage; Rep. DeLena Johnson, R-Palmer; and Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski, said they were disadvantaged by the coalition House majority’s approach to the budget and could not express their views effectively.
“I think my constituents and the people that elected me deserve better,” Johnson said before leaving the meeting. “And as such I will not be participating today.”
Monday’s meeting was the start of a weeklong budget drafting process for members of the House. Meeting in small groups, House lawmakers are finalizing draft budgets for each state agency. At the end of the week, those agency budgets will be combined into a proposal that will serve as an alternative to the governor’s budget.
To draft the alternative, subcommittees are using a process last employed in 2016, when Republicans controlled the House. (The past two years used a different system.)
Using last year’s budget as a starting point, subcommittees are asking their members to vote on each element of Dunleavy’s proposal. If the vote fails, the subcommittee will instead advance what’s known as the “base budget” projected for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
As explained by the nonpartisan Legislative Finance Division, the base budget consists of last year’s budget, minus one-time programs and funding, plus known scheduled cost increases like inflation and contracted salary raises.
Lawmakers may propose amendments cutting or adding money to that base budget, but it serves as the default alternative if the governor’s proposals are rejected.
A March 7 memo from Rep. Neal Foster, D-Nome and co-chairman of the House Finance committee, outlined the change for lawmakers.
Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, said the change was discussed with minority members of the committee on Friday, and none raised concerns at that time.
“We’re following this process that other legislatures in the past have followed,” he said Monday afternoon.
In addition to her discontent over the selection of the base budget as the default alternative, Johnson said she left because the process was forcing herself and other lawmakers into awkward votes.
For some programs, she said, she favors funding higher than what has been proposed by the governor but less than the base-budget alternative.
To do that, she would either have to vote to cut from the base budget (after the governor’s changes have been rejected) or vote to accept the governor’s proposal (and convince a majority of the subcommittee to do the same), then propose an increase.
“They’ve put us in this situation where up is down and down is up,” Johnson said.
Asked whether the process is intended to force minority members into awkward votes, Ortiz flatly said, “no.”
He added that minority members still have means to propose amendments: They can suggest changes in the full finance committee or on the House floor.
“They have a second bite at the apple,” he said.