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Governor wants infrastructure package, PFD paid quickly, but Senate majority says the budget comes first

The Alaska Capitol. (January, 2021)
The Alaska Capitol. (January, 2021)(KTUU)
Published: Jan. 21, 2021 at 6:29 PM AKST
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - The governor wants the Legislature to quickly pass a Permanent Fund dividend and a infrastructure package, but the Senate will likely work on the budget first.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy said during his December budget announcement that he wanted a $300 million bonding package before voters in the spring to boost infrastructure spending. He also wants a $1,900 dividend paid quickly to help people struggling financially before a second dividend is paid later in the year.

“It’s really an issue of expediency and I think that they’re fully capable of doing that,” Dunleavy said of the Legislature on Wednesday.

Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, the chair of the Senate Finance Committee, is largely in charge of how the budget and other spending bills will move through the Legislature. He wants to deal with the budget first.

“We need to set the base first, the foundation, and then take a look at a reaction,” Stedman said. “Rather than just for expediency’s sake, start putting through very expensive programs, whatever they may be.”

The operating budget typically takes a full legislative session, and sometimes longer, to come together. It’s typically one of the last bills that passes before the Legislature adjourns.

Stedman said he wants the budget to be passed in March, months earlier than usual, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Senate then could deal with a bonding package and the possibility of an additional dividend.

“There are differing opinions within the Senate majority about a stimulus PFD,” said Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, on Wednesday.

The Legislature has been sharply divided in recent years on how to address the state’s fiscal crisis and the PFD. Those sharp divisions are also present in the new Senate majority caucus.

The Senate majority caucus has 14 members with Bethel Democratic Sen. Lyman Hoffman joining the caucus on Wednesday. Micciche said that the Senate majority represented the diversity of opinions in Alaska. The priority would be to ensure every member is heard along with the public.

“You’re going to see an unprecedented amount of two-way communication with the people of Alaska,” Micciche said.

Anchorage Democratic Sen. Bill Wielechowski, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, supports both an additional dividend in 2021 and a bonding package. Bonding typically takes years before projects are operating, but Wielechowski said federal pandemic infrastructure spending could help Alaska in the meantime.

The House of Representatives could be an impediment to quickly passing COVID-19 relief measures. It remains unorganized, meaning it largely cannot legislate.

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