State operating budget passes the Senate as legislative session inches closer to ending

The Senate convened just before 4 p.m. for the first time Wednesday and was in session for about 20 minutes before delaying discussions for another hour.
Published: May. 17, 2023 at 7:24 PM AKDT|Updated: May. 17, 2023 at 7:26 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Lawmakers in Juneau are still trying to negotiate the state’s new operating budget, with only a few hours remaining in the regular legislative session. Both the House and Senate were scheduled to convene at 11 a.m. on the final day, but were delayed to a call of the chair until well into the afternoon.

The Senate convened just before 4 p.m. for the first time Wednesday and was in session for about 20 minutes before delaying discussions for another hour. After the operating budget — House Bill 39 — was introduced on the Senate Floor, a number of amendments were put forward.

Among the two that passed was one from Republican Sen. Bert Stedman, who proposed $82.4 million in cuts from the Senate’s previous version of the bill, taking the oil tax credit from $55.7 million to $28.35 million and removing the $40 million allocation to cover costs associated with a potential government shutdown. Stedman’s amendment also slashed the Department of Health and Public Assistance childcare benefits and Medicaid services in half, from $15 million to $7.5 million.

Senator Shelley Hughes expressed her disappointment in the proposed budget after reading a letter she received from a senior citizen.

“Don’t say, as been said in past years, that we need part of this PFD from this elderly woman to put into and pay for government programs — they won’t help her,” Hughes said on the floor. “And we’re doing this while we’re giving ourselves a 67% raise?”

Back in March, the Alaska State Officers Compensation Commission unanimously agreed to increase the salaries of the governor, lieutenant governor, state department heads, as well as state legislators — a move that will bring lawmaker’s current base pay of $50,407.50 to $84,000.

The House tried to block the increase with House Bill 135, but was unable to send it into final passage before the May 15 deadline. The Governor’s salary will increase from $145,000 to approximately $176,000 while the Lieutenant Governor will receive an approximate $15,000 pay raise on top of the $125,000 current salary. Final salary rates will be determined by the Division of Finance.

Senator Mike Shower agreed with Hughes.

“I cannot go home and look my constituents in the eye while giving ourselves a $34,000 a year pay raise when we just cut the PFD,” Shower said. “The process, the pay raise, the PFD, and we don’t have a fiscal plan. It’s not just about this budget so much to me — heck, I might have even been able to vote for it — but we’ve got to do better than what we’re doing and we need a fiscal plan.”

Before the Senate took the 17-3 vote to pass the bill, Stedman touted the work of the delegation and commended the work of the Senate Finance Committee.

“We’re roughly running a $110 million surplus after the amendments tonight on a balanced budget,” Stedman said. “Living within our revenue stream, meeting our fundamental obligations.”

The bill will now head to the House.