Extended legislative session all but inevitable as constitutional deadline looms

Kenny Knutson / KTUU
Kenny Knutson / KTUU(KTUU)
Published: May. 14, 2019 at 10:23 PM AKDT
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The Alaska Legislature looks set to go past its 121 day constitutional deadline in an effort to deal with the Permanent Fund Dividend and to possibly finalize a package tackling crime.

Lawmakers can choose to extend the session by ten days with a two-thirds vote of both chambers, or call a 30-day special session with a vote of two-thirds of the entire Legislature.

The governor is also able to call the Legislature into a special session and define what bills lawmakers are able to consider.

Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, said the Senate majority “seems to tend toward a special session, where the subjects are tightly confined.” She said there isn’t 100 percent agreement within the caucus for that method.

Anchorage Democratic Senator Tom Begich said a 10-day extension is “not realistic” to deal with the Permanent Fund Dividend, and that a special session would likely be required.

Across in the House, there was publicly less clarity. House Speaker Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, would not be drawn into a question of whether his caucus preferred a shorter extension of the session or a month-long special session.

Anchorage Republican Representative Lance Pruitt, would also not be drawn into disclosing if there is a position held by the caucus. For him to support a 10-day extension or a special session, he wanted a public assurance from the House majority that the agenda would be tightly defined.

Meanwhile, a special committee formed to negotiate the budget again failed to deal with the PFD Tuesday evening, and a proposed $12 billion transfer into the Permanent Fund corpus.

The Senate’s budget contains a roughly $3,000 PFD following the statutory formula. The budget passed by the House did not contain a dividend amount as members wanted to debate the measure separately.

Giessel said the majority caucus has 11 votes for a dividend amount but not on a specific figure. In the House, Edgmon said the majority had remained firm on delivering a PFD while funding core state services.

According to Pruitt, the House minority caucus supports a full dividend.

The committee though did approve the Senate’s proposed cuts to the Alaska Marine Highway System at more than $40 million dollars in FY2020, and not to pay $70 million in refundable oil and gas tax credits from receipts from the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority.

Instead the Legislature will wait to see if the courts will decide to allow the state to issue bonds to pay down over $700 million in debt.

The hope of passing an operating budget by midnight Wednesday, the constitutional deadline for the end of session, is looking more difficult to imagine.

The 24-hour rule means lawmakers need to have a bill on their desks for a full day before voting on it. The rule can be waived but the conference committee on the budget needs to meet again Wednesday morning before finishing its work.

A crime package would also be a tough turn around for lawmakers.

The House failed to concur on a public safety package passed unanimously by the Senate Wednesday with the bill now headed to a conference committee to negotiate its differences.

Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, would not describe all the potential sticking points in the bill with the far-reaching changes made in the Senate, but he signaled that the cost of the legislation would be part of debate.

“The financial consequences of the Senate’s changes are dramatic,” he said. The legislation passed by the House would cost tens of millions of dollars more in the next fiscal year to deal with the influx of more inmates and potentially reopening Palmer Correctional Center.

Rep. Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage, said on the floor that it was essential to scrutinize the dozens of adjustments made by the Senate. “Rubber stamping changes of this magnitude is irresponsible,” he said on the decision not to concur with the bill.

The legislation, said by the Senate majority to repeal and replace the provisions of Senate Bill 91 still in effect, would increase sentencing ranges, toughen penalties for drug possession and increase penalties for certain sexual assault offenses.

“I am so proud of what has happened in this body and over in the House,” said Sen. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River. “For three and half years, I made it my goal to repeal and replace SB 91."

The conference committee dealing with the crime package is set to meet for the first time at midday on Wednesday.

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