Key Issues Linger As Legislative Session’s End Closes In

The Alaska State Legislature is scheduled to gavel out on Sunday, before the stroke of midnight. But many of the issues lawmakers have delved into – the budget, Medicaid, marijuana – are still unsettled. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez joins us to talk about what the end game for the legislative session looks like.

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Lori: Is everyone in a frenzy trying to get things done before Sunday?

Alexandra: If you walked through the Capitol right now, it wouldn’t look like it. It’s almost eerie. Hallways are empty. Committee hearings being delayed and interrupted, and in many cases canceled. It’s almost like being in the eye of the storm. Caucuses are meeting behind closed doors to hash out last minute deals, and there’s a sense that things are happening but people don’t want to talk lest they blow those deals up. One of the things that’s really striking is you have fewer lobbyists trolling the halls going into the final stretch of session. There was one I spoke to who suggested it was because we were in a budget deficit. When there’s no money to spend on projects, there’s nothing to really run around over.

Lori: Passing a budget is the Legislature’s biggest obligation right now. Where do we stand there?

Alexandra: Yesterday, the House Finance Committee removed language from the capital budget that would have authorized the state to spend money from its constitutional budget reserve. That’s the state’s $10 billion rainy day fund, and a three-quarter vote in both the House and the Senate is required to tap it. In the Senate, the Republican majority has a large enough membership that they’re okay there. But in the House, the Republican majority is going to need to pull four votes from minority members to get it through.

Another thing of note is that more than $40 million was added to the capital budget in support of the Knik Arm Bridge project. This was a bit of a surprise, given that Gov. Bill Walker has said

Lori: Are we seeing much public pressure on the Legislature to get specific things done?

Alexandra: Yesterday, there was a rally to encourage Medicaid expansion on the Capitol steps. And then today, we just had a totally surreal situation where two protests on very different issues were happening simultaneously. You had a bunch of high school age students offering public testimony on cuts to education, because money for schools was stripped out of the budget and put to a vote before the public could comment on it. And then on the other side of the street, you had anti-abortion protesters displaying some pretty graphic imagery. If

Lori: Does it look like we may go into extra innings?

Alexandra: The governor has said getting Medicaid expansion through is a must-have for him, and that he’s willing to call legislators back if they don’t pass it. So, we could see a special session there. Legislators also have the option of just extending the session by a month, because even though a citizen’s initiative a few years ago capped the session limit to 90 days, the Constitution still allows them to meet for 121 days. Now, there’s a question of logistics tied up in all this. Most legislators have leases that end by May 1st, and a lot have cars ready to ship on the ferry. That might serve as an incentive to get work done.