Alaska House votes to shut down budget debate

Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, gazes at the ceiling during debate Thursday on the House budget bill in Juneau. The House voted to shut down debate on the budget on Friday. Chenault’s Republican minority coalition objected, saying it was an unprecedented manuever. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

The Alaska House voted to shut down debate on the state budget.

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Members of the House minority say the action is stifling debate. The two House caucuses disagree about the budget, the rules and what lawmakers should focus on.

The House floor session on Thursday was the culmination of weeks of frustration on both sides of the aisle.

Members of the mostly Democratic House majority said they’ve allowed more amendments to the budget than in any session that any current House member has seen. But Republican minority caucus members said they’ve never seen a majority limit the number of amendments or the budget debate.

House minority leader Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage, said Democratic Speaker Bryce Edgmon unfairly limited debate.

“They are stifling our opportunities, and now they’re doing it again on the floor,” Millett said. “I mean, it’s a shame that Speaker Edgmon feels that he has to do this. It’s unfortunate because I think he’s a reasonable guy up until today. I mean, this – I’ve never seen a speaker do this before.”

Some of the conflict may be the result of the change in partisan control of the House.

Edgmon is the first Democratic speaker since 1993.

Edgmon said the majority acted to limit debate when it appeared the minority would extend debate for days, at a time when the House faces other pressing issues.

“It’s also a debate that follows on the heel of a very robust subcommittee process as well as a Finance Committee process that found, at least in my memory, a record amount of budget amendments to be offered,” Edgmon said. “All this in the midst of Alaska being in a fiscal crisis.”

The first 40 minority amendments would have cut about $50 million from the $4.3 billion state budget.

The majority rejected all of the cuts.

Republican minority members said there’s nothing more pressing than to make more cuts, before considering actions such as making changes to the Permanent Fund.

Former Speaker Mike Chenault, a Nikiski Republican, said he would hold budget debates until late into the night.

The sessions were frequently interrupted for breaks this week, and ended by 9 p.m. each day.

“Not once have we ever limited debate to the minority on amendments,” Chenault said. “That is exactly what we’re doing here today.”

House Rules Chairwoman Gabrielle LeDoux made the motion to end debate at noon Friday. It passed along caucus lines, 22-18. She said it was apparent that the minority was engaging in a filibuster, which is a term for making speeches to prevent action.

“So we just decided basically that enough was enough,” LeDoux said.

Friday will be the fifth day of debate on budget amendments.

There were more than 50 amendments debated through Thursday afternoon.

Majority members said the Legislature should complete work on the budget, and move on to bills that would draw money from the Permanent Fund.

The majority also has introduced bills to reinstate an income tax, and to reduce oil and gas tax credits.

The state has a $2.7 billion gap between the amount the state spends and the amount it raises in oil royalties, taxes and fees.