Politics

House GOP majority proposes putting non-budget business on hold

JUNEAU — The Alaska House voted overwhelmingly Monday to shut down all business except for work on legislation to fix the state's massive budget deficit, with lawmakers saying the problem requires a "laser focus."

The Republican-led majority caucus made the surprise announcement on the House floor Monday morning, introducing a measure, House Concurrent Resolution 23, to suspend a set of legislative rules for committee meetings.

The resolution, which passed 38 to 1, allows House Speaker Mike Chenault to order committee chairs to only consider legislation that would raise money or control how it's spent. And the committees would be able to meet on a single day's notice, relaxing current rules that require committee meetings to be announced a week in advance.

Rule suspensions are common when lawmakers near the end of their 90-day sessions, but rare at this point, less than one month since the start.

The proposal is aimed at narrowing the House's attention to Alaska's budget crisis, with the state facing a $3.8 billion deficit for its $5.4 billion spending plan.

The idea came from the 26-member Republican majority caucus.

It needed approval from two-thirds of the 40-member House, leaving the majority one vote shy. But after an hourlong break for deliberation, all but one member of the Democratic minority gave their support.

Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, was the sole vote against the measure because, he said, he was uncomfortable with allowing hearings on a single day's notice.

"Fundamentally, I think people deserve sufficient notice," he said in an interview after the vote. "I think it's my job to protect that notice."

Several of Josephson's colleagues voiced similar concerns in speeches before the vote, but ultimately sided with the Republicans, citing the enormity of the budget crisis. Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, said majority members still wanted to give the public more than a day's notice before committee hearings, but needed the flexibility that the rule change provided. A spokesman for the House Democrats, Mike Mason, said the Democratic leader, Anchorage Rep. Chris Tuck, got a "handshake deal" with Chenault that the notification issue would be "revisited" next week.

Even before the vote Monday, House Republicans were already setting their plan in motion. After the introduction of the resolution on the House floor, a string of GOP majority members announced that they'd canceled committee meetings scheduled for later in the week.

"It's officially all about the budget now," Rep. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, said in a tweet, using the hashtag #AllAboutTheBudget.

The plan wasn't coordinated with the Senate, said Senate President Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, and there were no signs the upper chamber would immediately follow suit. But Johnson said Senate approval of the resolution wouldn't be necessary for it to take effect in the House.

The text of the resolution allows the House speaker to limit the subject of committee meetings to "measures that substantially relate to and have as their primary purpose appropriating, raising, or allocating state revenue."

It would only be in effect until the House passes an operating budget, which last year happened a little more than halfway through the Legislature's 90-day session.

The House won't be trying to pass a budget early this year, Johnson said. Instead, he added, it's trying to pack more work into the same amount of time.

The move means that at least for now, House members will have to eschew some of the ceremonial or symbolic legislation that's drawn criticism in the past, like measures endorsing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, establishing a remembrance day for the 1964 earthquake, ending daylight saving time or creating Marmot Day on Feb. 2 in place of Groundhog Day.

That was noted by Sen. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, who made an offhand remark Monday afternoon to one of his counterparts in the House: "We don't get to do your peony week resolution now."

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