An Alaska House-Senate conference committee met for the first time Wednesday morning and formally laid out the budget dispute among lawmakers that's kept them six weeks past the scheduled end of their legislative session. Then, without taking any action, the committee recessed until Friday.
The full House and Senate are not scheduled to meet until Friday as well.
The conference committee hearing amounted to an airing of grievances by members of the three deadlocked groups of lawmakers: the Senate's Republican-led majority, the House's Republican-led majority and the House Democratic minority.
Discussion concluded with legislators talking about how long they've been away from their homes, even as they said they were essentially restarting negotiations from scratch. A partial state government shutdown due to their failure to produce a budget is less than a month away.
"This is a new conference committee," said Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, the chairman of the three-member House delegation to the conference committee and the co-chairman of the House Finance Committee. "We're starting over again."
Nonetheless, the hearing showed that the three groups of legislators fundamentally differ over just two pieces of the competing $5 billion budget packages passed by the House and Senate -- pieces that amount to a change in overall spending of less than half of 1 percent.
One of the differences is over $16 million in education grant funding. The other is the source of one $30 million chunk of savings -- should it come from canceling state workers' scheduled pay raises, or from an unspecified cut to state government that would likely cause layoffs?
Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, the conference committee chairman from the Senate side and co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, restated an argument he's made before, that the raises were inappropriate in the face of a multibillion-dollar budget deficit "tsunami." Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, argued that his chamber had compromised and accepted the pay raises before sending its budget plan to the Senate.
"To me, it's like moving the goalposts backwards," Gara said.
The committee adjourned after lawmakers discussed those items, as well as the outlook for negotiations, but they didn't vote to resolve any of their points of disagreement. The meeting was over in less than an hour.
One committee member, Rep. Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks, the other co-chairman of House Finance, said he was planning to return home and would fly back when necessary -- though he said it was also possible for him to attend meetings telephonically.
Lawmakers are trying to resolve an impasse that's blocked passage of a balanced budget since the end of April. Without a deal, Gov. Bill Walker has warned of a partial government shutdown beginning July 1, the start of the state's next fiscal year.
While Neuman characterized the negotiations as starting over, he also tried to reassure members of the public whom he said have been urging the Legislature to finish its work.
"Believe me, there's a lot of work going on right now," Neuman said during the hearing. "And there's a lot of committed people."
Afterward, a small group of lawmakers and staff celebrated Kelly's 59th birthday -- with candles and a cake -- in the lobby of the Legislature's Anchorage office.
Meanwhile, though, some other legislators were unable to disguise their disgust with the budget process.
Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, sent an email to constituents Wednesday with the subject line: "Ugh." The message described the impasse as "political Ebola" that spread from the U.S. Congress.
"What was once quarantined to the political swamp of Washington, D.C., has somehow vectored to Alaska," Kreiss-Tomkins' newsletter said. "The 2015 legislative session is one we'll be talking about for decades, in a very bad, no good, 'please, dear God, never again' kind of way."
He added: "On behalf of the legislative branch of government in Alaska, I am SO sorry."