JUNEAU — A lack of agreement on the size of the Permanent Fund dividend threatens to derail the Alaska Legislature’s plan to end their work by a Wednesday deadline. If lawmakers do not pass a budget by then, they could be forced to enter a special session.
The Alaska House and Senate held marathon floor sessions Monday with dozens of bills on the line. In the meantime, budget negotiations were relegated to closed-door discussions between members of a conference committee tasked with finding a compromise between the House and Senate versions of the bill.
The Senate budget, which was rejected by the House on Saturday, included $5,500 in payments to Alaska residents. The House version of the budget included half that amount in payments.
Whether the Legislature finishes its work by Wednesday depends on the work of the committee, said Sitka Republican Sen. Bert Stedman, who chairs the conference committee.
“Normally we have a couple weeks to do this,” Stedman said. The committee must finish its work by midday Tuesday to allow enough time for House and Senate members to consider the committee’s spending plan and vote on it before midnight on Wednesday.
In a meeting Monday afternoon, committee members quickly agreed on several budget items. But the dividend, which is widely agreed to be the main sticking point in the budget process, wasn’t brought up. The committee is expected to meet again Tuesday morning.
The meeting came after several hours of closed-door discussions among committee members and their staff as they worked to find agreement where the Senate and House plans diverge.
Other members of the committee are Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks; Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage; Rep. Kelly Merrick, R-Eagle River; Rep. Daniel Ortiz, I-Ketchikan; and Rep. Bart LeBon, R-Fairbanks.
Stedman and Bishop have been vocal opponents of the $5,500 in payments — divided between a full statutory $4,200 dividend and $1,300 in one-time energy assistance checks. The plan would have cost the state more than $3.5 billion and forced the state to spend most of the revenue windfall is gained due to higher oil prices attributed to the war in Ukraine.
Merrick, Ortiz and LeBon all voted against the Senate’s budget on the House floor on Saturday.
But on Monday, committee members were tight-lipped about the dividend amount that would emerge from their work.
Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy remained silent on the budget process as the Legislature neared its deadline. Dunleavy last week met with House members as they considered the Senate’s budget. Lawmakers have said the goal of those meetings was to pressure House members to vote in favor of the $5,500 in payments to Alaskans.
When the House rejected the Senate’s budget, Dunleavy released a brief statement, but he and his staff have been largely silent on their target for the dividend amount and priority bills they would like to see passed by the Legislature before the Wednesday deadline.
Meanwhile, the House and Senate floor sessions on Monday lasted from morning to evening and brought discussions on a wide away of bills, including ones relating to mental health and public safety.
But notable bills remained absent from the calendar as they stalled in committee hearings, threatening their prospects for approval before the end of the session. Those include a bill that would reinstate limits for political campaign contributions after a court case invalidated the state’s limits earlier this year. They also include a reading bill that failed to pass out of a House education committee last week. The governor has indicated he would veto other education funding without a reading bill in the books.
The last days of the session often bring a frenetic energy as lawmakers waive rules and procedures to expedite bills moving through the legislative process and hold sessions that last late into the night. In these final days, lawmakers say it is difficult to tell which bills will make it across the finish line, and whether both chambers will agree on a budget that will allow them to avoid a special session.
”Anything is possible,” said Rep. Calvin Schrage, I-Anchorage, who sponsored the bill to limit campaign contributions.
”When something is extremely important, and the Legislature comes together around that, we’ve been known to accomplish some pretty tremendous feats and sometimes that involves people running back and forth like crazy, racing to get a committee report across to the other body quickly enough.”