Alaska Legislative Recess Ends With Talk of Shutdown, and Without a Budget

by | May 13, 2015

By Pat Forgey

The Alaska Legislature pretended to return from its recess Tuesday, but only a handful of legislators were there and they quickly gaveled out and left the Capitol.

It was, they said, a "technical" session that kept them in compliance with the constitutional requirement that they meet every three days while in session.

At the House and Senate sessions, six representatives and three senators were in attendance, mostly from Southeast.

Gov. Bill Walker wants them to pass a budget that addresses the state's $3 billion budget gap and has called them into special session to do so.

Walker said legislators promised that a break would result in progress on the budget and two other bills on the special session call, Medicaid expansion and child abuse prevention, after they were able to talk with constituents and study the issues.

"I'm very upset; they did not do the work they intended to do during this recess break," he said.

At an Anchorage press conference he warned that budget inaction threatens to cause a damaging government shutdown.

And uncertainty over whether Alaska will abide by contracts it has signed may threaten the state's creditworthiness and scare off potential natural gas pipeline investors simply because legislators won't come to an agreement, he said.

"We're preparing for a government shutdown with $10 billion in the bank," he said.

The "bank" Walker referred to is actually the Constitutional Budget Reserve, Alaska's rainy day savings account. To tap it and balance this year's budget takes a three-quarters vote, meaning the 13-member Democratic caucus has to agree to a budget to get the necessary money.

At Tuesday's technical session of the House of Representatives, Rep. Sam Kito, D-Juneau, acting as minority leader, told House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, that despite construction at the Capitol, Juneau could accommodate legislative sessions and legislators should return.

"Having people in Juneau, having people being able to talk with each other and work with each other is the surest way to get us to an agreement," he said.

Later, Chenault said that wouldn't really help because only the finance committee has any work to do and it is already doing it in Anchorage.

"If we were sitting here in Juneau, and the finance committee was meeting, and it was the only committee meeting, everybody would be out running around doing whatever they wanted to do," he said.

"To claim that because it is in Anchorage versus here that we can't get our business done, I see no difference if we were down here in Juneau," he said.

Chenault said talks are continuing to try to reach a three-quarters approval of a budget, but so far, he said, some members of his own House majority caucus and members of the Republican-led Senate majority have been unwilling to agree to Democrats' demands for their votes.

One of the Senate's negotiators in the process, finance committee co-chair Pete Kelly of Fairbanks, issued a statement saying it was up to Chenault to reach an agreement with the House Democrats.

In the Senate, where Majority Leader John Coghill served as acting president Tuesday, he called another session, likely also a technical session for Friday. Work may start in committee, or even with the full Senate, the following week, he said.

A single Senate committee has held a single meeting since the special session began two weeks ago, but Coghill said more meetings may come.

The Senate has yet to hold a hearing on Erin's Law, a child abuse education and prevention bill that was also part of the governor's special session call. Chenault noted that bill has already passed the House, so it is now up to the Senate to address it.

Coghill said that while the Senate could hold hearings, it needs the House to reach a budget agreement before it can act.

"We're kind of in the position of ratification," he said. "If they get an agreement, they come talk to us."

On the House floor Tuesday, Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, said the Legislature needs to get back to work on the topics in the special session call.

"We have failed to address any of these issues in any meaningful way," he said.

Despite taking a break to talk to constituents, no public hearings have been held and local communities are left in the lurch without a budget, and it is being noticed around the state and in communities such as his, he said.

"We have had two editorials in the Ketchikan Daily News decrying the fact that first we recess without finishing our jobs and that we've left local communities like my own wanting to know what it is that will actually be the funded amount that those communities will receive for education," he said.

Walker said that that legislators failing to provide a funded budget means they're not complying with the state Constitution. "Their obligation is to provide a funded budget for the administration to carry out," Walker said.

(c)2015 the Alaska Dispatch News