Legislature Votes To Allow Hearings Outside Of Juneau

While Gov. Bill Walker has ordered the Legislature hold its special session in Juneau, lawmakers may have found a workaround: He can’t control where they hold their committee meetings, or how often they have their floor session. The Republican majorities have moved to take a recess, while continuing their committee work on the road system.

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Since the special session went into effect on Tuesday, the issue of where and when the session is held has taken up about as much time as anything on the session agenda. On Wednesday, the governor denied a request from legislative leadership to relocate the session to Anchorage. And now, on Thursday, the House and Senate voted to stop holding floor sessions in Juneau for the next two weeks.

“As the governor, he can call us in here,” said House Speaker Mike Chenault, in an interview. “But he can’t tell us where our committees are going to meet.”

House Speaker Mike Chenault says the resolution allows the finance committees to hold hearings in Anchorage, something they could not do without a recess. Under the Legislature’s rules, they must meet in the main House and Senate chambers and hold floor sessions as a whole body every three days at minimum. That basically chains the Legislature to Juneau.

House Majority Leader Charisse Millett carried the resolution to waive that rule.

“What it means is we won’t have House floor sessions until the 12th — that’s all this means,” said Millett. “Every other business will continue on, but we won’t come to this floor and push buttons when we don’t have a budget bill in front of us.”

The budget is one of three items on the special session agenda, with Medicaid expansion and a bill establishing a sexual abuse prevention program in schools making up the rest of the call.

Millett noted that negotiations on a budget have been at a stalemate. Right now, the legislature was only able to reach an agreement to pay for government operations through the fall. The Republican Majority needs some Democratic support to get access to the state’s rainy day fund, but the House Democratic Minority has made Medicaid expansion a condition of their vote.

“It’s an impasse,” said Millett. “A lot of times, when you’re negotiating contracts, what do you do, Mr. Speaker? You take a break, right? Take a break. Cool off. And so, what we’re asking to do is not take a break, but we’re asking to change the conversation from here to Anchorage, or on the road system somewhere where we can all talk about what’s happening.”

The divide on the recess resolution broke on caucus lines. Some Republicans noted that construction was being done on the Capitol building, making for less than ideal working conditions. With heavy machinery beeping in the background, Juneau Democrat Sam Kito said that the city had other venues available if needed. He added that lawmakers should be able to reach an agreement on a budget if they just stick around a little longer.

“I think we are down to the last couple of items in negotiations for the operating budget,” said Kito. “I don’t think that we need to take any kind of a roadshow out there right now.”

But Rep. Bennie Nageak, a Barrow Democrat who caucuses with the Republican majority, emphatically disputed that. Since Nageak is not in leadership or on the finance committee, he says he’s had to miss part of whaling season all to sit on the sidelines.

“We’ve been here for a few days. Nobody’s budging, and nothing is being done,” said Nageak. “And right now, in my hometown, and all along the coast, from Barrow to Point Hope, they’re doing a thing that we’ve been doing generation upon generation. And I’m missing that.

The resolution passed 24 to 13 in the House, and 15 to 5 in the Senate.

In a press conference, Gov. Bill Walker said he would not take further action on the session’s location. He did, however, say he was disappointed.

“I’m disappointed so many are leaving at a time I think we are so close to a resolution,” said Walker

Walker noted that if the state does not manage to pass a fully funded budget that pays for government for the whole year, Alaska’s credit rating could be at risk.