Special session to begin Thursday after lawmakers fail to compromise

Gov. Bill Walker signs a proclamation for a special session focused on the budget and long-term spending plan, after lawmakers failed to compromise on Wednesday. (Photo by Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO and Alaska Public Media)

Gov. Bill Walker called the Alaska Legislature into a special session starting Thursday.

The session will focus on the state budget and the long-term gap between how much the state government spends and how much it raises. The Legislature failed to reach agreements on a budget and future plan in the 121-day session.

Walker issued a proclamation for the session shortly both chambers adjourned.

Walker called for lawmakers to consider eight items.

They include the operating, mental health and capital budgets. They’ll also consider bills to overhaul oil and gas taxes and increase the motor fuel tax. Others bills included by Walker are a measure addressing the opioid drug crisis and a bill to draw money from Permanent Fund earnings to pay for state government and limit Permanent Fund dividends.

The final item is legislation to increase an existing tax or establish a new broad-based tax.

House Speaker Bryce Edgmon said he’s disappointed the Legislature couldn’t finish its work on time for the third straight year. Government layoff notices will go out at the beginning of June, in case there’s no budget on July 1.

“I don’t think anybody wants to see pink slips go out, but I think we’re definitely in that territory now,” Edgmon said. “And clearly … this is the third year in a row that we have flirted with a government shutdown in Alaska and it’s very unfortunate. But, then again, the challenges that are before the state are historic in nature and are very difficult.”

Both the House and Senate have passed separate bills to spend Permanent Fund earnings to pay for state government and limit Permanent Fund dividends.

The House also passed bills to bring back an income tax and raise oil and gas taxes to close the budget deficit. Senate majority members say leaving a deficit will apply pressure to keep spending down. They also express hope that spending cuts and oil production increases will close the gap.

The two chambers haven’t made progress in recent weeks in bridging the difference between their Permanent Fund bills. Instead, they’ve focused on other bills.

The two bodies did agree on a bill, House Bill 132, paving the way for transportation networks like Uber and Lyft to enter Alaska. Sponsor Mia Costello said shortly before the Senate passed the bill that it’s needed.

“60,000 Alaskans have tried to access a ride via a ride-share app simply because, I believe, there’s an expectation out there that we have it here in Alaska. And we don’t,” Costello said. “But today … with the passage of this bill, we will.”

The two chambers agreed on two other significant bills on Wednesday. One, Senate Bill 55, fixes technical problems with last year’s criminal justice overhaul legislation and requires the state to develop a plan to address a backlog of untested rape kits. The other bill, House Bill 16, brings Alaska into compliance with the federal REAL ID Act.