By Nathaniel Herz
The Alaska Legislature formally stamped its approval on a long-awaited bipartisan budget deal Thursday, then shut down for the summer.
The deal, some eight weeks in the making, represents an agreement between the state House and Senate on a $5 billion spending plan for next year. It preserves scheduled pay raises for public employees -- a sticking point between the two chambers -- even as it slashes state agency spending by $400 million to help close a multibillion-dollar budget deficit.
The House made the final move to adjourn just after 5:45 p.m. Thursday, after a series of debates and procedural votes in both chambers throughout the day. The Legislature also overwhelmingly approved a high-profile bill to combat sexual abuse and dating violence that includes measures previously known as Erin's Law and Bree's Law.
"It's good to be done," Anchorage Rep. Matt Claman, a Democrat in his first year in the Legislature, said on his way out of the chamber.
Gov. Bill Walker seemed to forget his differences with the Legislature for a moment when he praised its actions Thursday.
"I commend the Legislature for coming together to make an agreement on the budget," Walker said in a prepared statement. "The state employs over 15,000 hard working men and women, and provides essential services to each and every Alaskan. Now that a budget has been passed, we can all get back to work and not worry about the harmful impacts of a potential government shutdown."
The final House votes late Thursday in Anchorage marked the official end to the Legislature's second special session this year. The agreement came after lawmakers failed to pass a funded budget at the end of their regular 90-day session, which began in Juneau on Jan. 20 and was supposed to finish April 19. Passing a budget is the only job required of the Legislature in the Alaska Constitution.
It took nearly two extra months for the House Democratic minority and the Republican-led Senate majority to reach budget terms on which their members could agree. Those two groups, as well as the House Republican-led majority, had to support the budget to clear a constitutional three-quarters voting threshold to access billions of dollars in the Constitutional Budget Reserve, a multibillion-dollar savings account needed to pay for state government.
Thursday's final budget bill ultimately included $30 million in additional spending -- an increase of less than 1 percent -- from a preliminary spending plan passed in late April without support from the House Democratic minority.
And the deal represented no difference in spending from a compromise budget bill that passed the House two weeks ago with bipartisan support before the Senate rejected it, pushing negotiations to within three weeks of a government shutdown set to start July 1.
Members of the Republican-led Senate majority caucus initially said they wouldn't support the House budget because it contained the scheduled pay raises for state workers. That's even though the raises were balanced by a $30 million cut spread across state government that Gov. Walker's administration says would result in layoffs.
But the senators ultimately relented when the House agreed to include non-binding language in the budget deal asking the administration to hold future contracts flat -- with clauses to reopen negotiations if the price of oil goes above or below key thresholds.
Money from oil taxes and royalties makes up the majority of Alaska's revenues, but a price crash and reduced production have opened a multibillion-dollar gap in the state budget, with the state projected to run out of money in a few years without big fiscal changes.
Asked what the Senate had obtained by withholding its approval on the budget deal for two weeks, majority member Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, responded: "The tension."
"The issue isn't the amount of money we're spending. The issue is that we have a cliff coming," Hoffman said in an interview. "Hopefully, the people of Alaska understand there's a fiscal crisis -- that's the issue."
Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, offered a different interpretation, saying that the delay in passing a budget was an unnecessary and "horrible experience" for the public.
"It's brought into sharp relief the shortcomings of the people in charge," Ellis said in an interview. "Democrats don't believe we should inflict pain on everybody just to send a message to Alaskans."
Thursday's adjournment came after a flurry of floor sessions and votes in both chambers over the course of the day. Proceedings were interrupted for a few hours in the afternoon while legislative leaders met with Gov. Walker to discuss his evolving plans for the state's participation in a project to build a natural gas pipeline from the North Slope.
The House began the action Thursday morning, with members formally approving its budget compromise with the Senate by a 32-7 vote.
A separate vote to tap the billions of dollars in the state savings account, the Constitutional Budget Reserve, passed 38-1, with Rep. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, the only member opposed. She's a caucus of one after getting kicked out of the Republican-led majority for opposing an earlier version of the budget.
The Senate followed with its own 16-3 vote on the budget and a unanimous vote on spending the money in the reserve fund.
Senators then took a break for the meeting with Walker. When they returned, they voted unanimously to pass House Bill 44. That measure, the Alaska Safe Children's Act, is aimed at stopping sexual abuse and dating violence.
In the final event, a series of choreographed moves, the House approved the Senate's version of the sexual abuse prevention measure. The vote was 37-1, with only Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, opposed.
Wilson said she couldn't vote yes based on dozens of revisions and additions that the Senate made to the bill. And she punctuated her remarks on the House floor by calling the new version a "piece of crap."
The final budget bill, meanwhile, was essentially unchanged after the House first approved it late last month.
But lawmakers nonetheless gave a string of speeches on state spending and Alaska's fiscal predicament before their votes Thursday.
None sounded particularly happy about the deal. Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, said it was natural for a bipartisan package to be greeted with some discomfort.
"There are things in here that I don't like, and there are things in here that some of you don't like," Gara told his colleagues, noting that Republicans had failed to sign off on Democratic proposals to slice state tax credits granted to oil companies by $200 million, and to expand the public Medicaid health-care program. "The fact that there are things in the budget that I don't love is not going to stop me from voting for this budget."
Wilson said she plans to start work on cutting next year's budget immediately, even after the Legislature sliced hundreds of millions of dollars from state agency spending this year.
"When this is over, if you sit on my subcommittee, get your pencils out," Wilson said. "We're going to take more of the government out of government and put it into private hands, and make sure that the entrepreneurs can take us to the next level."
Republican senators echoed their House counterparts, with Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, warning that budget cuts are "not going to be any easier next year."
"Some of those cows that escaped a haircut this year -- some of those cows are actually going to be butchered," he said.
On their way off the floor after their chamber passed the sexual abuse prevention measure, two senators said they were going back to their second jobs later in the afternoon.
Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, said he was headed to work as an attorney for a labor union, while Senate President Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, was returning to oil company ConocoPhillips, where he's an investment recovery coordinator -- or disposer of secondhand property.
Meyer noted that the the governor, in their meeting Thursday afternoon, indicated that he planned to call the Legislature into another special session in the fall -- this time on the gas pipeline project.
Asked how he felt about the prospect of reconvening the Legislature for its fourth session this year, Meyer chuckled and responded: "It'll be a different topic."
There are 222 days, meanwhile, until the beginning of the next regular legislative session.
(c)2015 the Alaska Dispatch News (Anchorage, Alaska)