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Legislature votes to take 12-day recess

  • Author: Pat Forgey
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published April 30, 2015

JUNEAU -- Looking much like they're defying Gov. Bill Walker's call for a special session in Juneau to pass a budget and other bills, legislators Thursday voted to "recess" for a couple of weeks.

They denied they were taking a vacation.

Legislators have been deadlocked and unable to pass a budget that included a source of money to pay for its expenditures.

Leaders of the Republican-controlled House and Senate majority caucuses earlier asked Walker for two weeks off before continuing work in Anchorage, but he refused.

After the Legislature decided to take time off anyway, Walker said late in the day Thursday that he was "very disappointed" but that he would not be taking any steps to respond and continue the dispute.

The resolution authorizing the recess passed entirely along caucus lines, 24-13 in the House and 15-5 in the Senate, with the Republican-led majority caucuses in each house supportive and the Democratic minorities opposed. Three members of the House majority were absent: Jim Colver and Shelley Hughes of Palmer and Cathy Munoz of Juneau.

The Legislature's finance committees will continue to meet, while most legislators will go home.

Walker's special-session call included the budget as well as expansion of the Medicaid program and a child sexual-abuse prevention bill called "Erin's Law."

Republicans defended taking time off to go home.

"We're not quitting, we're asking our constituents what they want," said Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole.

But Sen. Berta Gardner, leader of the Senate's Democratic minority, said they wanted to keep working on a budget.

"We haven't completed our work. It's premature to go home," she said.

Several Republican leaders in both bodies maintained that they had passed a budget. While it doesn't have funding for more than a few months, they could return to Juneau and try again to obtain the three-quarters vote of the House that's needed to tap the $10 billion Constitutional Budget Reserve, they said. The state will need to obtain about $3 billion from savings to balance the budget.

Office of Management and Budget Director Pat Pitney told the House Finance Committee Thursday that passing a budget without funding didn't meet their obligations.

"It doesn't serve as a valid budget," she said.

Later, in a meeting with reporters, Walker reiterated that point.

"We have an expenditure document without a revenue side, and to me, that is not a budget," he said.

After Walker called the special session, he provided a new budget proposal that he said offers a middle ground and that he hopes can be a basis for compromise.

Early response from legislators angry about the stalemate, unhappy with the extended session and not wanting to be in Juneau, was not positive.

"I think it is going to be a tough sell in this body," said Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, co-chair of the House Finance Committee.

The recess resolution that passed in both houses calls for the finance committees to continue work during the time off.

A press release from House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, said the House had voted to hold interim hearings in Anchorage, and they would be held at the Legislative Information Office.

The resolution actually doesn't say that, but House leaders have been explicit in their desire to meet in Anchorage, and not Juneau. The Senate Finance Committee will begin meeting on the budget Monday, in Juneau, Senate staff said.

Legislators seeking to get away from Juneau pointed to construction that is to begin soon on the Capitol, for which workers are already mobilizing.

Neuman warned of the risk to the staff and public from the seismic retrofit work.

"This is an older building that contains asbestos, it contains lead paint, it contains other contaminants that can get into the air," he said.

He warned of liability to the state if the public is invited into a building for meetings and bricks fall on them. Neuman said he'd worked in construction and knew the risks.

"I've had plenty of accidents near me," he said.

But Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, urged that the sessions be held in Juneau, where everyone is already gathered and alternative venues are available, if needed.

"We spend much less money when we do our work here in Juneau," Egan said.

During last summer's Capitol construction, Gov. Sean Parnell and Juneau-based legislative staff kept working during the construction, but while they joked about the noise, they also praised the professionalism of the construction crews in preventing danger to the public. Some offices were forced to relocate as different parts of the building underwent work.

Egan also pointed out that Juneau's Gavel-to-Gavel network carries coverage of the sessions in the Capitol statewide.

"All Alaskans can see what we are doing when we do it here," he said.

While legislators are taking time off, Democrats were angering Republicans by calling it a "vacation."

"I'm sick of hearing that we're going on vacation," said House Majority Leader Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage. She acknowledged the term was a "good sound bite," but said even though she'd be going home for the recess, she'd be working.

"As an elected official, I'm never on vacation," she said. Like all representatives, she said she will be approached by constituents wanting to talk while in the grocery store.

The House had called a floor session for Thursday, but had nothing on its calendar before taking up the surprise resolution.

Speaker Chenault said the vote on the resolution calling for the recess was not a "procedural" vote, which would have meant all members of his majority caucus were bound to vote for it.

The break will not be popular with the public, said Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage. "This sends a really bad message to the public."

She said the first she saw of the resolution allowing the recess was when it was on the floor Thursday.

"It was news to me," she said, suggesting that the vote along caucus lines meant the decision had been made earlier behind closed doors in the majority caucus.

Rep. Max Gruenberg, D-Anchorage, made similar comments during the floor debate, and drew an admonishment from Speaker Chenault as tensions rose during the day.

"I wonder if it's more than a coincidence that all the people who have spoken in support of the resolution are from the majority caucus," he said.

"I hope you don't disparage the members of the majority or the minority in your comments on the floor," Chenault responded.

Leaders of both houses typically deny that they make decisions in secret.

The delay in budget decisions could mean school districts will have to notify teachers that they may be laid off because districts won't know what their budgets will be, Tarr said.

Under state law, such notices must be given by May 15, and Walker said that under the Legislature's schedule it would be "pretty challenging" to meet that deadline.

But budget talks among leaders such as Chenault and Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, leader of the House minority, will continue, they said.