House leaders aim for compromise, early school budget this year

Juneau-Douglas High School Choir and Alaska Youth Choir sing “Alaska’s Flag” at the opening of second session of the 30th Alaska Legislature on Jan. 16, 2018. (Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO-Alaska Public Media photo)

The second session of the 30th Alaska Legislature began Tuesday, with the caucus leaders expressing hope that this year will be more productive than 2017.

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The state government has spent down savings over the past three years. That means the focus of this year’s session will be on something that’s never happened before: spending money from Alaska Permanent Fund earnings to pay for state government.

House Speaker Bryce Edgmon said he hopes the Legislature can reach a compromise on a long-term budget plan.

“We realize that we need to work with the Senate,” he said. “We need to work with the governor. And we’re willing to sit down and negotiate and to talk about what it takes to not only get a budget done for the upcoming year, but to put a package together that keeps essential services in plan and allows for our economy to once again stabilize.”

Last year, members of the House majority that Edgmon leads said an income tax is a necessary part of a budget plan. This time around, the Dillingham Democrat isn’t making a tax a precondition for a deal.

“We intend to go forward in a manner that allows us to work with everyone and to try to come up with a reasonable solution to a problem that’s pretty large,” he said.

Edgmon said the House plans to pass a school funding bill early in the session, separately from the rest of the budget. He also said bills restructuring the Alaska Marine Highway System and updating the Legislature’s sexual and other workplace harassment policies are also on the agenda for the session.

And the speaker said the Legislature will keep a close eye on federal plans to develop oil, gas and the state’s other resources.

“Alaska’s resource development state and the fact that we may have more prospects for oil and gas exploration, as well as opportunities, both onshore and offshore is something that we need to take a close, hard look at,” he said. “And our caucus is committed to being a good business partner, certainly, with the industry.”

House minority leader Charisse Millett, an Anchorage Republican, said her caucus’s priorities include cutting the budget and putting a limit on state spending in the future. She said House Republicans will oppose new taxes.

Millett said the Trump administration’s policies also will help.

“We’re in an environment now with an administration that’s really going to help Alaska open up our resources, which is going to be a great boom for the state of Alaska and great opportunity, so I’m super optimistic about session,” she said. “I think there’s going to be a lot of great things done this session.”

Millett is a member of the Legislative Council subcommittee reviewing the harassment policy. She’s circulated a draft policy among both lawmakers and employees who work for the Legislature.

“And I want it to be something that the Legislature can be proud of, that protects our employees and creates a safe environment where people can be productive and want to come to work,” she said.

Millett also supports passing a school budget early. And she hopes the Legislature gets its work done in the 90-day session set by state law. She said that can happen if the House majority gives up on an income tax.

“That means we could possibly get the budget done early, if we’re focusing on the budget as a standalone, and it’s not tied to anything else, or, you know, ‘We won’t do the budget until you do X, Y and Z,’” she said. “I don’t see that happening this year.”

The House Finance Committee will start work on the budget on Thursday.