Alaska House passes budget bill with speed unseen since ’93

Rep. Neal Foster, D-Nome, speaks to colleagues on the House floor in January. Foster is co-chair of House Finance and spoke in favor of the House budget bill this week. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

JUNEAU – The Alaska House of Representatives approved a state budget on Tuesday, voting along caucus lines.

Rep. Neal Foster, D-Nome, said he and his colleagues came to an agreement through a lot of give-and-take.

“We were able to get this budget out a whole week earlier than at any time over the past decade, on track for a 90-day session,” Foster said.

It’s been even longer than a decade. This is the earliest the House has passed a budget since at least 1993, according to House Finance Committee staff.

The budget, House Bill 205, doesn’t include money for Permanent Fund dividends. House leaders said PFDs will be addressed later in a separate bill.

Members of the Republican House minority voted against the budget, citing the lack of PFD funding. The House rejected more than a dozen minority-caucus amendments aimed at increasing current PFDs or cutting spending. It also rejected paying back past dividend amounts that were cut.

Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, said his constituents feel government spending is a problem. He said Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy introduced a budget with nearly flat spending to reduce conflict.

“We’ve seen what his preferred budget was last year,” Neuman said. “The Legislature had a fit. The public had a fit about a lot of the issues. He introduced a flat budget to take the wind out of that sail, I believe.”

Majority-caucus member Gary Knopp, R-Kenai, praised Dunleavy’s approach this year.

“He laid out a great starting point for us, not draconian in style,” he said. “It was pretty flat with last year’s, and it gave us the opportunity to get off the ground running. And so you really have to thank him for that.”

Rep. Sara Hannan, D-Juneau, said the state still has unmet needs. But she supported the budget.

“I urge you to support the operating budget, because it is a compromise of what we need to do to keep Alaska open for business and to keep Alaska prepared for the 21st century,” she said.

Spending on everything other than PFDs would be similar to the budget proposed by Dunleavy. The portion of the budget directly controlled by the Legislature would be $4.45 billion.

The budget includes a $25 million cut to the university budget that the governor and the university regents agreed to in August.

The House budget would spend $9.7 million more than the budget Dunleavy proposed. The largest increase to Dunleavy’s proposal was to the Alaska Marine Highway System.

Kodiak Rep. Louise Stutes, a Republican in the majority caucus, said the increase would start to bring back the ferries.

“That’s step one in bringing back transportation to some of our stranded rural communities,” she said. “That’s filling their freezers, getting them rides to the doctors.”

The largest cut the House made to Dunleavy’s proposal was for sending prisoners out of state. The administration has dropped that proposal.

Minority Leader Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, said that despite voting no, he appreciated the majority engaging with the minority on the budget.

While several representatives praised programs funding education, Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, said the budget isn’t good for children.

“This is not at all a kid-friendly bill. What we might be spending toward educating our children we are taking from them on the back-end because … we are spending more than we are taking in,” Eastman said. “And so, over time, what that is going to mean is fewer opportunities, fewer dividends — if any — (and) higher taxes.”

The House adopted one amendment related to the Parents as Teachers program. It rejected all minority-caucus amendments. Eastman introduced most of them.

The final vote was 23-16. Anchorage Republican Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, who isn’t in a caucus, voted against it. Eagle River Rep. Sharon Jackson, a minority-caucus Republican, was absent.

The budget bill now heads to the Senate.