Alaska Legislature kicks off second regular session in Juneau

The 32nd Alaska Legislature started its second regular session on Tuesday afternoon.
Published: Jan. 18, 2022 at 7:39 PM AKST
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Coming off an acrimonious year when legislators spent the longest time in session in state history, the 32nd Alaska Legislature started its second regular session on Tuesday afternoon.

It’s a general election year. Fifty-nine of 60 legislators are up for reelection in November due to redistricting and several legislators said that could affect how long lawmakers spend in Juneau and what they achieve.

Alaska is set to receive billions of dollars in federal infrastructure funding over the next few years which could see a much larger capital budget than has been approved in recent years. A question for legislators, and Gov. Mike Dunleavy, is who gets to decide how that money is spent.

“I think that’s going to be the battle,” said Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage. “The fact of the matter is that we’re the appropriating body, the constitution gives us that power. The governor may have a different view of that, and if he does, we’re obviously going to have a conflict.”

Begich said his priorities with that infrastructure spending is ensuring that federal money is spent in the “least political manner as possible” and that it’s used to improve the lives, health and safety of Alaskans.

The governor’s budget proposal calls on the Legislature to use $375 million of a separate federal COVID-19 relief package to replace state spending in the next fiscal year’s budget.

House Speaker Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, preferred not to call it a battle with the administration over how federal funding is spent, but said a priority for the House majority caucus is using that spending to improve services and not just temporarily replace state dollars.

Legislators are constitutionally required to pass an operating budget for the fiscal year that starts on July 1. Last year, they narrowly averted a state government shutdown after an annual procedural vote failed for when the budget would come into effect.

Members of the House Republican minority caucus withheld key votes on the budget’s effective date, demanding progress to enact a fiscal plan. Rep. Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, said she guessed that may not be an issue again as the House and Senate Finance Committee co-chairs could organize passing a budget early to avoid another showdown.

She said that was her preference and noted speeches on the House floor about a better and more communicative relationship between the majority and the minority.

“I’m hoping that that is a reality,” Tilton said.

For Tilton and Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, the number one priority is working to resolve the Permanent Fund dividend debates. He is optimistic there can be progress made this year.

“It’s a great opportunity after the new folks have worked with the stodgier, long-term folks,” Micciche said. “I believe this is the year that the Legislature will come together on the lion share of a fiscal plan that will set the policy needed for us to set the state on a better path forward.”

Last year, a bipartisan and bicameral fiscal policy working group called on the Legislature to pass a constitutional 50-50 dividend package with hundreds of millions of dollars in new, annual revenue measures. The proposal was warmly received across the aisle, but progress to pass a fiscal plan stalled over four special sessions.

The governor spoke during a press conference on Monday about his legislative priorities, including passing a fiscal plan and improving public safety. He introduced an omnibus election reform bill on the first day of the session, drawing in part on some existing proposals from legislators.

Dunleavy says he wants the Legislature to pass election reform measures quickly ahead of the August primary. Micciche said he hopes the governor’s bill gets a fair hearing, but it may be difficult to pass any election-related bill through a sharply divided Legislature.

Several legislators prefiled bills resisting COVID-19 vaccine mandates. Tilton said that is another priority for her constituents, but those proposals could also face significant push back.

There is a proposal to revise how the Permanent Fund’s board of trustees are chosen after the corporation’s executive director was ousted last month and ideas for new campaign contribution limits after old caps were struck down by a federal appeals court.

Dunleavy issued an executive order on Tuesday to split the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services in two. A similar order was issued last year, but was withdrawn after errors were discovered.

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