As Negotiations Continue, Little Public Action From Legislature

With negotiations over the state’s multi-billion-dollar budget deficit still underway, the Alaska House and Senate met in brief and uneventful floor sessions over the weekend.

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Because there was no agreement to vote on, the House session lasted 15 minutes. The Senate session was over in five. Both bodies also canceled separate Finance hearings. While no public action was taken on the budget, which requires a draw of $3 billion dollars from the state’s rainy day account or another fund, legislative leaders were optimistic that a deal could soon be reached.

Senate President Kevin Meyer, an Anchorage Republican, says there has been some progress between the House’s Republican Majority and Democratic Minority. Meyer says Speaker Mike Chenault has been talking to House Minority Leader Chris Tuck about what Democrats need to support drawing from the rainy day fund.

“If their requests are reasonable, I think the Senate will be amenable. If Mike has to give a lot to get Chris and the minority on board, then we could be at this for a while, because it’ll be a hard sell to the Senate.”

In most situations, a three-quarter vote is needed to draw from the state’s constitutional budget reserve. Democrats have withheld their support for more than a month in hopes of increasing funding for education and advancing other aspects of their agenda.

Last week, the Republican majorities had floated a plan to circumvent the Democrats using a loophole to the three-quarter rule. That threshold drops down to a majority vote, if funds in other accounts — like the Permanent Fund Earnings Reserve — are not available for spending. In a bit of tricky accounting, Republicans had proposed moving money in the earnings reserve account to the corpus of the Permanent Fund, so that money would not count against them when taking a vote on the budget reserve.

But a group of six majority members opposed that plan, out of concern that it could have a negative impact on dividends in years where the stock market was weak.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, an Anchorage Democrat, says that fracture has reinvigorated the budget compromise.

“I do think this week something’s going to happen,” says Wielechowski. “I feel like we’re getting close to a resolution on this.”

Lawmakers have until June 1 to pass a budget before layoff notices are sent to state employees, and until July 1 before Alaska experiences a partial government shutdown.

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