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Alaska Senate: If there's going to be a special session, let's get out of Juneau

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published March 30, 2016

JUNEAU — There are still nearly three weeks left in this year's regular legislative session. But some lawmakers are already setting up for overtime, and debating whether they should relocate to some place other than Juneau if Gov. Bill Walker calls a special session.

The Senate on Wednesday passed a resolution urging Walker to pick a place on the road system as the location for a special session — over the strenuous opposition of Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau.

The measure, sponsored by Sen. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, anticipates lawmakers won't be able to come up with a financial plan and budget that will satisfy a majority of both the House and Senate, and Walker, before the end of the 90-day session April 17.

Stoltze said he hopes the measure will be made irrelevant by a normal adjournment. But some legislators and observers are growing increasingly pessimistic about the possibility of an on-time adjournment, with Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz telling a television anchor Tuesday he looks forward to discussions about new legislation "during the special sessions," making a point by using the plural "s."

Not everyone in the Capitol, however, appears to believe that. A top aide to Senate President Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, posted Monday on Facebook she expected to be home for her birthday in late April. (The chief of staff to House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, responded by calling that a "pretty bold prediction" that he'd take bets against.)

Forecasting the existence and length of a special session, or sessions, is a perennial pastime for lawmakers, staff, reporters and others. The news director for Juneau's public television and radio stations runs an annual "Gavel Classic" which, in a twist on the annual Nenana Ice Classic, asks participants to predict the date and time that the Legislature adjourns.

(Last year's winner: former legislative staffer Amory Lelake, whose prediction of a 102-day session turned out to be just six hours off.)

"It's a ritual in the spring — basketball pools, special session speculation," said Larry Persily, a former deputy revenue commissioner and legislative expert who now advises the Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor.

This year's resolution from Stoltze comes after last year's legislative session ended in a drawn-out debacle.

First, lawmakers couldn't agree on the details of a spending plan before time expired. House Democrats wouldn't give the votes the state Constitution requires to spend money from a state savings account, leaving the state budget only partially funded.

Walker then called a special session in Juneau. But lawmakers brushed him off, voted to adjourn and moved to Anchorage instead, where budget negotiations dragged on until they finally finished in June.

Legislative leaders, particularly in the Senate, say they still aim to finish in 90 days this year.

But there's also a growing recognition that the huge policy disagreements between lawmakers, and developing a fix for a $4 billion state budget deficit, may take more time to resolve.

Outstanding issues include proposals from Walker and several lawmakers to restructure the Alaska Permanent Fund, and what to do about the $825 million in cash subsidies projected to be paid by the state to oil companies next year.

"If I was a betting man, I'd say yes," said Rep. Adam Wool, D-Fairbanks, when asked if he thought lawmakers were headed toward a special session.

Stoltze's resolution passed the Senate 13 to 7 on Wednesday, with two moderate Republican senators, Bert Stedman of Sitka and Gary Stevens of Kodiak, joining five Democrats in opposition.

GOP senators who voted for the bill noted that renovations on the Capitol are scheduled to resume soon after the legislative session ends; Stoltze said one alternative Juneau venue, Centennial Hall, is already booked for events in late April and May.

"I wouldn't want to kick prom out so that some politicians can have some meetings here," he said.

Egan, the Juneau Democrat, proposed three amendments to the bill, including one that would have required the Legislature to certify a special session on the road system would be cheaper than one in Juneau. All were voted down.

Juneau's legislative delegation has fiercely fought all efforts to conduct legislative business outside the capital city, but they've found themselves a persistent opponent in Stoltze.

Last year, he floated the idea of moving the legislative session to the Legislature's renovated office building in Anchorage, though he never introduced legislation because Walker said he wouldn't support it. Stoltze summarized Walker's position Wednesday by saying, "if you even think about a bill, he'll veto your thought."

Stoltze's measure now heads to the House. But even if lawmakers pass it there, the measure ultimately amounts to nothing more than a strongly worded letter to Walker, who said in a prepared statement he would take the recommendation into consideration "should I need to call a special session in the future."

"I appreciate the Senate's input on this matter," he said. "However, I am hopeful the Legislature will pass a complete fiscal plan in the time that has been allotted to them."

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