In feud over PFD, Alaska Legislature grinds to a halt when Republican lawmakers refuse to show up

Speaker of the House of Representatives Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, presides over a partially filled floor session on Feb. 12. A similar scene played out on August 25 when minority-caucus Republicans refused to attend a floor session. There were too few members present to conduct business. (Peter Segall/Juneau Empire via AP, Pool)

The Alaska House of Representatives couldn’t conduct any business Wednesday when minority-caucus Republicans refused to attend a floor session. The mostly Democratic House majority didn’t have enough members present to reach a quorum. 

The two sides traded accusations.

House Speaker Louise Stutes said the absence of minority Republicans is holding up the Legislature’s ability to pay for permanent fund dividends. Stutes is a Kodiak Republican who caucuses with the majority. 

“It’s very sad for me, to see these people putting Alaskans secondary to the my-way-or-highway — and that seems to be the way their approach is: It’s their way or the highway, instead of, ‘Let’s sit down and work this out,’” she said. 

Dillingham independent Rep. Bryce Edgmon said there’s limited time to pass the dividend bill, since both chambers are struggling to have enough members in Juneau. 

“And unfortunately, the alternative — if we miss that window of time, in August as we turn the corner into September — we may walk out of here with a zero PFD,” he said. “And that’s not what our majority wants.”

RELATED: Alaska House committee lowers proposed PFD amount to $1,100

But Minority Leader Cathy Tilton, a Wasilla Republican, pushed back against the idea that her caucus caused the failed floor session. She said it was the majority that couldn’t get a quorum. The majority caucus holds a slim one-member advantage and Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, was absent. Rep. Sara Rasmussen, R-Anchorage, who doesn’t belong to either caucus, also was absent. 

Tilton said she warned the majority that minority Republicans may not attend the session because they don’t want to see a PFD bill pushed through that they can’t weigh-in on. Her caucus asked for the ability to draft and vote on amendments to the bill. 

Stutes told legislators in an email Wednesday that she planned to get through all amendments that night. Tilton said that wasn’t enough time, since the lawyers who draft legislation don’t have enough time to draft amendments requested after 6 p.m. for the same night.

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Matt Claman said he’s not aware of any previous time when legislators in the Capitol refused to attend a floor session. He compared it to a recent dispute in the Texas Legislature, in which Democratic lawmakers left the state to prevent a quorum to conduct some business. While the Texas House speaker signed arrest warrants for absent members, Stutes said she hoped Alaska legislators would work together. 

Minority Republicans also asked for hearings on the governor’s proposals to amend the state constitution to include the dividend and lower the state limit on spending, as well as to debate other legislation affecting the state budget in the long term. 

“We should be having hearings,” Tilton said. “There’s nothing holding us back from having those hearings, so it doesn’t seem like there should be a problem with making those happen.” 

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After hours of trying, and failing, to reach a quorum – majority members held a brief news conference. They said they planned to hold hearings on the governor’s constitutional amendment idea and the other budget bills next week. The House Special Committee on Ways and Means has scheduled five meetings in the next two weeks, including hearing a bill from Wasilla Republican Rep. David Eastman – who is in the minority – that would make changes related to the budget.

The majority caucus had planned to act quickly on the bill to fund PFDs, which the House Finance Committee passed Wednesday morning. The current version would set dividends at $1,100, which is less than half of the $2,350 that Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy and some minority Republicans support.

Tilton said the caucuses differ on how to pass the dividend funding. 

“While it’s important that we get a dividend out to Alaskans — I would completely agree with that — I think we may disagree on the amount of that dividend, and what it looks like,” she said. 

In other news, Dunleavy announced that the state would fund university scholarships and the medical education program, known as WWAMI. Funding for the two programs — about $15 million — has been held up in a legal dispute over unspent funds that get swept into a state savings account each year. He said the programs were funded for the next year before the rest of the money in the accounts to pay the programs was swept.

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