Special session off to slow start, despite looming deadlines

It was a slow Monday in Juneau, as lawmakers gaveled in for the first day of their fourth special session in two years.

Gov. Bill Walker called the legislature back to work this week after it failed to pass a budget by the end of the regular session last Wednesday.

Lawmakers now have 30 days to try to accomplish what they couldn’t manage in the last four months: pass a budget and make some progress toward closing the state’s $4 billion deficit.

APRN’s Rachel Waldholz is in Juneau this week.

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House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage and House Minority Leader Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, confer after the first floor session of the legislature's special session on Monday May 23, 2016 in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney, KTOO - Juneau)
House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage and House Minority Leader Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, confer after the first floor session of the legislature’s special session on Monday May 23, 2016 in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney, KTOO – Juneau)

LORI TOWNSEND: It sounds like it was a short day down there.

RACHEL WALDHOLZ: It definitely was a short day. There wasn’t much action, at least in public. The House met for about 20 minutes and the Senate met for less than 15 minutes. They introduced some of the bills the governor has asked for, and adjourned.

The big question is whether they’re going to pick up where they left off last week, or if they’re going to have to start over. When the regular session ended at midnight last Wednesday, all the bills that hadn’t passed essentially died. But they can be brought back to life. It just takes a two-thirds vote in both Houses.

The question is whether they can get that two-thirds vote. That’s what the Republican leadership would like, because if they don’t get that vote, they have to start the bills over and go through the whole committee process again. And then it’s going to be a real slog.

TOWNSEND: Sounds like it would be. Do they have a plan for how to make the next 30 days any different from the last four months?

WALHOLDZ: The short answer is: no. It doesn’t seem like they do. James Brooks, a reporter with the Juneau Empire, asked House Speaker Mike Chenault what the next two weeks will look like. This is what Chenault said:

MIKE CHENAULT: I have no clue. (Laughs). My hope is that we pass an operating budget as quick as we can and take that off the table. Not so it’s a bargaining chip or anything, but just… we get it off the table, employees know what’s going on and the state knows what’s going on.

WALDHOLZ: You heard him mention employees and the state. That’s because the Legislature is facing two deadlines. If there’s no budget by June 1, layoff notices will go out to state employees, letting them know they might be laid off at the end of the month. If there’s no budget at the end of the month, by July 1, then the state could face the possibility of a government shutdown.

The Republican majority would like to pass an operating budget and fund it with savings, for now, and then go back and deal with some of the more contentious revenue issues later — like restructuring the Permanent Fund to use some of the earnings for state government, or looking at taxes, including an income tax. They’d like to do that after passing a budget.

TOWNSEND: Does that seem likely?

WALDHOLZ: Chenault said the two sides were really close on a budget last week, and he seems to think they could get a budget done by next week.

But there are three factions that have to agree. There’s the House majority and the Senate majority, which are both controlled by Republicans; and then there’s the House minority, which is controlled by Democrats.

I spoke with House Minority Leader Chris Tuck, and he said, basically, his caucus can’t vote for a budget unless there’s some kind of agreement on an overhaul of oil and gas taxes.

This is what he said when I asked about getting a budget done this week:

CHRIS TUCK: It all depends on what we do in the oil tax credits again. That was the point of contention, [why] we could not get a budget passed in the regular 121-day session…We just can’t see dipping into our savings to give to the oil industry.

TOWNSEND: What’s on the schedule for tomorrow? Are lawmakers lining up hearings so they can get started on these bills and get to work?

WALDHOLZ: There are hearings scheduled for tomorrow. The House finance committee will be taking up the governor’s proposal on taxes, including an income tax. House Finance will also be looking at the Governor’s plan to restructure the Permanent Fund. Senate Finance is also meeting [UPDATE: The Senate Finance meetings were canceled.]

So it looks like it will be a busier day tomorrow than it has been today.