With No Deal On Budget, Legislative Session Goes Long

The Alaska Legislature missed its adjournment deadline on Sunday night, after failing to reach agreement on the state’s budget. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports.

It was certain by 8pm that the Legislature would not be gaveling out. A conference committee still had not met on the state’s operating budget, and the usual buzz and urgency of the last day of session was missing entirely.

Taking a break outside the Capitol, House Speaker Mike Chenault explained the hold up was a vote to draw from the constitutional budget reserve to fill a multi-billion-dollar deficit. Without support from the Democratic minority, the Legislature is short at least three votes to tap the rainy day fund.

“We get through it by negotiating with our minority on what they need to get out of here for a three-quarter vote,” said Chenault. “But yet, in turn, we’re not going to add millions of dollars back into the budget that we don’t agree with.”

Making a deal of that scale is already hard enough, but compromise was further delayed by personal circumstances. That Sunday morning, the daughter of Democratic Minority Leader Chris Tuck and conservative talk radio personality Bernadette Wilson was born. Tuck flew back to Anchorage to meet the seven-pound Penelope Grace. Chenault, a Nikiski Republican, said that obviously could not be helped.

“He’s got a new baby girl,” said Chenault. “It might have been not the right time, but he did what I would have done in his place. And I would have gone back and seen my wife and my child.”

There are a few big sticking points in the negotiations. Democrats would like to see education funding restored, and they would like for the Legislature to expand Medicaid. They also want reverse some cuts to the ferry system, public broadcasting, and pre-kindergarten.

Chenault says that if an agreement cannot be reached, a government shutdown is possible.

“That’s not something we want to see with our state employees. I don’t believe that’s what the minority wants to see either,” said Chenault. “That’s, I guess, the nuclear option, if you want to call it that.”

On the Senate side, Majority Leader John Coghill also spoke of dire consequences if a deal failed. The North Pole Republican said the Legislature could try to fund government using the permanent fund earnings reserve, which requires a simple majority instead of a three-quarter vote.

“There’s a huge political reluctance to take that money, because it has huge impacts on the dividends,” said Coghill. “But I can tell you, that may be the very next thing we’ll have to do.”

But House Democrats have objected to the compromise being described in such stark terms.

“The permanent fund earnings is a deadly game,” said Rep. David Guttenberg, a Fairbanks Democrat. “If they’re going to play that game, I’m not going to participate in it.”

Democrats believe their conditions for supporting a budget reserve draw should not come as a surprise.

“We talked about Medicaid expansion and reform. We talked about education that doesn’t cut kids and opportunities. And we talked about seniors,” said Rep. Scott Kawasaki, a Fairbanks Democrat. “I mean we’ve talked about the same thing from the beginning.”

Negotiations will continue Monday.

While the legislative session is scheduled for 90 days by statute, the Alaska Constitution allows lawmakers to meet for 121 days without calling for a special session. Last year, the Legislature also gaveled out late, taking 95 days to complete their work.