Long, fruitless day on the Alaska House floor as the budget goes backwards

Rep. Neal Foster, D-Nome, speaking to the Alaska House of Representatives about the operating...
Rep. Neal Foster, D-Nome, speaking to the Alaska House of Representatives about the operating budget on Sunday, May 2, 2021. (Sean Maguire / Alaska's News Source via AP, Pool)
Published: May. 2, 2021 at 7:32 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - The Alaska House of Representatives had a long and fruitless day on the floor Sunday with more delays than debates over the upcoming fiscal year’s operating budget.

After discussions between legislative leaders behind closed doors, House Speaker Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, announced shortly after 6 p.m. that the amended budget would head back to the House Rules Committee to facilitate a better working relationship between the majority and minority caucuses.

“It doesn’t behoove anybody for us not to get along and work together,” she said after the floor session.

Stutes said she didn’t expect the decision to take the budget off the floor would impact whether the Legislature could adjourn before the 121-day constitutional session limit on May 19. That was still a viable option but largely dependent on what happens in the Senate, she added.

Over seven hours earlier, the legislative day began at 11:00 a.m. with all 18 members of the Republican minority caucus arriving on time into the House chamber. Stutes walked into the room and spoke to Rep. Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, the House minority leader.

The session was delayed by an hour.

When the House convened, Rep. Neal Foster, D-Nome, who chairs the Finance Committee, stood to speak about the bill itself, but was interrupted by an objection from Tilton.

She wanted the House to consider dozens of unheard amendments. Every legislator from the 21-member House majority coalition, with the exception of Utqiagvik Rep. Josiah Patkotak, did not.

There was a vote to hear the amendments. Patkotak and Rep. Sara Rasmussen, R-Anchorage, voted alongside the minority caucus to move ahead and consider them.

The 20-20 vote failed, meaning debate would be limited to the budget bill itself

The House minority coalition stormed off the House floor. The majority coalition members stayed put as did Rasmussen who doesn’t sit with either caucus.

There was another delay for another hour. Then debates began about the budget process.

Fairbanks Republican Rep. Bart LeBon said he had planned to vote yes on the budget, but now he couldn’t because of the unheard amendments.

“All voices deserve to be heard,” he said.

He was followed by several of his minority caucus colleagues in expressing their frustration.

During a marathon Saturday floor session, close to 20 amendments were considered. Several amendments from the minority, supported by Rasmussen, Patkotak and Merrick, were added to the budget.

One amendment, also introduced by the minority, would have paid a PFD following the 1982 statutory formula.

The 20-20 vote did not split neatly along caucus or party lines.

Reps. Foster, Patkotak and Liz Snyder, D-Anchorage, all members of the House majority coalition, supported paying a statutory dividend. Rasmussen also voted for a roughly $3,000 PFD.

Fairbanks Republican Reps. Steve Thompson and LeBon joined 18 members of the House majority in voting down a full statutory dividend. The House looks set to pass a PFD through other legislation.

Delays in budget debates mirror delays in the budget process itself.

Part of the wait has been deciding how to use federal American Rescue Plan funds. Around $700 million from that package has been earmarked by the House to be spent this year.

Foster told the House that roughly $300 million would be spent on infrastructure through the capital budget. Around $400 million would be spent in other areas, including $30 for small business relief, $30 million for the tourism sector and $80 million for local governments.

Alaska domestic violence shelters would also receive $6 million after bracing for a federal funding shortfall. Another pot of federal money would be used to fund the Alaska Marine Highway System for the next 18 months.

The operating budget from the House pays the 2021 portion of outstanding oil and gas tax credits but it does not contain K-12 education funding, Foster said, that was passed through other legislation.

The House spending plan for the federal funds is a rough draft.

On May 10, the Legislature is set to receive guidance from the federal government on how the money can be spent. The Senate can then decide where that funding goes before negotiating with the House on a final version of the budget that can pass through the Legislature.

After Foster spoke, Tilton stood to express her frustration. She said she understands there’s a compressed timeline to get out before the constitutional session limit.

“That does not mean the voices of all members should not be heard,” she said.

Thompson stood and suggested there was a promise to hear all of the minority’s proposed amendments.

An at-ease was called. Another delay stretched on for another hour.

Legislators stood around speaking to each other on the floor and in the hallways of the Capitol building.

There were competing accusations between legislators. Some members of the majority claimed the minority knew Saturday was for amendments and Sunday was to debate the budget bill itself. Some members of the minority suggested they had been blindsided.

Stutes, Tilton and Foster spoke in the Speaker’s office. Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, a former House speaker, joined them.

The hour-long delay stretched on and on. The House recessed until 4 p.m., then it was delayed indefinitely. It reconvened shortly after 6 p.m.

Stutes announced the budget, as amended, would head off the floor and back to the House Rules Committee. Thompson thanked Stutes, sparking banging on tables by legislators in support of that decision.

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