Legislation at a standstill as Alaska lawmakers settle in for long haul

JUNEAU — Tourists who will be arriving Saturday on Juneau's first cruise ship of 2016 will likely be treated to views of a seasonal species that's typically migrated north by this time of year.

The Alaska Legislature will almost certainly still be in town by week's end, with lawmakers and staff settling in for the long haul as they await movement on an oil-tax reform bill. The measure has brought progress to a standstill on the state budget and other deficit-reduction measures.

Legislative leaders toured a building Monday afternoon that could serve as their temporary offices once the Capitol closes completely for a renovation and retrofitting project this weekend, saying chances appear to be dwindling that they'll finish their work beforehand. Construction has already closed off Fourth Street in front of the Capitol entrance.

"It would be nice if we didn't have to move," Senate President Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, told reporters Monday. "But I just don't know if we can get it all done here in a week."

Meyer's comments came after the Senate's 3 1/2-minute floor session — the only business lawmakers conducted in public Monday. Several committee meetings were canceled, along with a floor debate scheduled in the House, which had been set to take up a criminal justice reform bill already passed by the Senate.

Lawmakers are now starting their second week of extra time in Juneau, having missed their deadline earlier this month to adjourn in 90 days — the limit set by a 2006 voters initiative. The Constitution allows the Legislature to continue for up to 121 days, however.

Legislative leaders said they're waiting for an oil-tax deal to emerge in the House, where members have been meeting in secret to try to strike a compromise that will help reduce the state's $4 billion budget deficit.


House Democratic minority members want to sharply scale back the $775 million in tax-credit subsidies set to be paid in cash to small oil and gas companies next year, while some members of the Republican-led majority say that cutting the subsidies too quickly could destabilize the supply of natural gas for Southcentral Alaska.

While they wait for an oil-tax deal — and collect per-diem checks totaling $12,500 a day — lawmakers have stopped working on all the other major deficit-reduction legislation proposed by Gov. Bill Walker, including House and Senate bills to restructure the $53 billion Permanent Fund to help pay for state government. The Permanent Fund bills are stuck in the finance committees of both chambers.

Monday saw no committee meetings held as several lawmakers trickled back into the Capitol after spending the weekend at home in Anchorage. Meyer said his chamber will wait for the House to produce an oil-tax compromise before it starts work again.

House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, said simply that his members were "working, hopefully getting closer to a compromise."

Chenault said his chamber has drafted a new version of Walker's oil-tax legislation but he hadn't seen a copy and didn't know who was working on it.

Meanwhile, a group of legislative leaders drove down the hill from the Capitol on Monday afternoon for a tour of the Bill Ray Center.

The two-story, 22,000-square-foot complex is near the Federal Building, the part of town known to locals as "The Flats." It's owned by First National Bank Alaska and appears to be the leading candidate for lawmakers' temporary office and meeting space once the Capitol closes down later this week.

The 40-year-old building is named for the late Bill Ray, a tough Juneau senator who also claimed that the State Office Building, or S.O.B., was named for him.

The Bill Ray Center lacks the sleek design and frills of lawmakers' newly renovated Anchorage offices, but having recently housed state fish and game department offices, it wouldn't need much work, said Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, who's one of the biggest boosters for keeping lawmakers in his home city.

"It's all wired — internet, phones. All they have to do is switch it on electronically," Egan said.

One of Egan's aides, Jesse Kiehl — who also happens to be Juneau's deputy mayor — added: "It ain't pretty. But it's totally functional."

The Bill Ray Center could be used for legislative office space and committee hearings, while floor debates could be held in Juneau's convention center or elsewhere, Meyer said. One other option could be for lawmakers to return to the Capitol for floor debates if contractors are finished working by mid-afternoons, Meyer added.

Legislative leaders didn't specify a cost to rent the Bill Ray Center, but Chenault, the House speaker, said it would be less than the cost of delaying the Capitol construction — which the Legislature's nonpartisan support agency has pegged at up to $33,000 a day.

Lawmakers would likely end up being forced to take a two- or three-day break for a move, Meyer said.

The Legislature's inclination to stay in Juneau contrasts with last year, when members voted to convene a special session at their Anchorage office building, saying they needed to escape the construction. Now those Anchorage offices are a target of public ire, with a judge last month ruling the Legislature's lease for them illegal and invalid.

Legislative leaders would also have to corral a two-thirds vote to relocate to Anchorage for a special session. In the meantime, work at the Capitol — a renovation and seismic retrofitting project now in its fourth year — has been intensifying. Lawmakers, lobbyists and aides offered descriptions of the noise Monday that ranged from a boat's motor to a dentist's drill to, simply, a "constant roar," as Meyer put it, saying that it had given him a headache.

The Senate, Meyer added, is ready and willing to take votes on the major issues before the Legislature whenever the House advances legislation. But until that happens, he said, "There's really nothing we can do except wait and hope."

Nathaniel Herz

Anchorage-based independent journalist Nathaniel Herz has been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Public Media. Read his newsletter, Northern Journal, at natherz.substack.com