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Alaska Senate president says Democrats taking Legislature 'hostage' in budget discussions

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published April 19, 2015

JUNEAU -- With the clock ticking toward the Alaska Legislature's planned midnight adjournment, there appeared to be little movement Sunday afternoon in the three-way state budget negotiations between Republicans in the House and Senate and the Democratic minority caucus in the House.

In an interview, Senate President Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, said House Democrats were "holding us all hostage" over a list of requests that amounts to "well over $100 million." The Republican majorities in both chambers need the support of House Democrats for a final budget package because of a constitutional provision requiring a three-quarter majority in each body to use money from the Constitutional Budget Reserve, a state savings account.

Meyer, who has an exact three-fourths majority in his chamber, said House Democrats are asking for the restoration of a $47 million cut that the Senate made to the state's per-student funding formula, or about 4 percent, plus another $30 million in education funding cut from the capital budget by Gov. Bill Walker.

The negotiations come as the Legislature tries to finish a deal on an operating budget that's expected to be close to $4 billion. That's down about a half-billion from last year's budget, with lawmakers introducing sharp cuts to help close a multibillion-dollar deficit created by a drop in the price of oil. Revenues from oil fund the vast majority of state services and government.

The Democrats have other "demands," Meyer said, like the expansion of the public Medicaid health-care program and passage of a law requiring schools to give students information about sexual abuse and prevention.

Meyer said the Senate Republicans are willing to make "some movement" on the education money, but he added that the Legislature would be in Juneau until a broader agreement is reached. The 90-day legislative session is scheduled to end Sunday night, though it could simply continue past the statutory deadline.

"I don't mind staying here, but it seems ridiculous the Democrats want to keep us here spending money in a time when we have no money," Meyer said.

The Democratic leader in the House, Rep. Chris Tuck, left Juneau early Sunday for Anchorage to see his baby girl born that morning. He's been the Democrats' negotiator in the budget talks and said in a phone interview earlier Sunday that he'd continue in that role, but he missed his scheduled flight back to Juneau on Sunday afternoon.

A spokesman for the Democratic minority, Mike Mason, said Tuck would continue to coordinate negotiations by phone but added that the three Democrats on the House Finance Committee, Fairbanks Reps. Scott Kawasaki and David Guttenberg and Anchorage Rep. Les Gara, would take an expanded role.

Gara said in an interview that the Democrats are asking "not to set education so far backward that parents start leaving the state." And he acknowledged that his caucus is pushing for expansion of Medicaid. But, he said, "we're also saying we're flexible."

One top House Republican, Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, said it was possible that his caucus could end up working with House Democrats to restore the $47 million education cut made by Meyer's caucus in the Senate.

"Maybe we'll all come together and unify against the Senate," Neuman said in an interview. He added that education funding was "obviously" the key point of the budget discussions.

"That's the $47 million question," he said.

House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, said his caucus wants the $47 million in per-pupil funding to be in the state's operating budget package. But he added that getting the additional $30 million in education funding that the Democrats want restored would have to come as an amendment in the state's capital budget package.

"It'll be voted up or down," Chenault said in an interview.

Asked about Meyer's characterization that the Democrats were holding the Legislature "hostage," Chenault responded: "He can describe it how he wants to -- they're negotiating in good faith."

"They've got a list of things they would like and we're trying to work with them," he said. "Hopefully we come to an agreement that gets us out of here on time."

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