On the first day of a special session called because the Legislature couldn’t get its business done in time, Juneau’s local delegation spent some of its time going about the regular routine of meeting with local students and explaining the accomplishments possible in public service.
It served as a reminder that during the 121 days of the regular session plenty occurred among the delegation that goes beyond the status of bills filed in the Legislature’s database.
Explanations of how a constituent’s problem can result in a new law, how caucuses work and — most relevantly — the process for awarding citations was explained in a meeting room at the Capitol by state Rep. Andi Story to the Thunder Mountain High School girls basketball team, this year’s Region V 4A champions. She also noted there is a significant recent increase in the presence of women serving in the Legislature.
“That’s why I want to encourage all of you,” she said, noting others in the room including staff for the delegation play key roles.
The citation was also noted by state Sen. Jesse Kiehl as he introduced the team while they were visiting the Senate floor session during their midday visit to the Capitol. The other Democratic member of the local delegation, Rep. Sara Hannan, didn’t get the same opportunity for the citation she co-sponsored since the House didn’t gavel in its floor session until more than six hours later as closed-door negotiations about the budget stalemate that caused the special session dragged on.
“It wasn’t a budget process at the end, that was a political process,” Hannan said, comparing the standoff to when she and nearly all of the other minority House members staged a walkout earlier this session due to a floor battle over the majority changing the parameters of an education funding nearly the entire chamber had voted to support.
“Are we arguing about the dollar values and the policies?” she said. “Not really. We’re arguing about how we feel. We’re now into an argument where we’re stuck arguing. But our policy decisions isn’t really what we’re arguing about out. Personalities and processes are what the arguments were.”
The special session lasted only one day, ending in what legislators of all affiliations called a strange fashion when the stalemate was resolved by adding $35 million in capital projects to a $6.2 billion budget that resulted in 10 members of the Republican-led House majority crossing over to join the minority caucus to pass a budget approved by the Senate. The outcome was widely seen as a political defeat for the House majority, but for Juneau’s three Democratic legislators there were also setbacks as well as accomplishments.
Kiehl played a significant role in crafting parts of the budget as a member of the Senate Finance Committee, which included chairing some of the subcommittees giving in-depth scrutiny to individual department’s budgets.
“You’ll see that in the inmate transportation for Lemon Creek (Correctional Center) because it’s half-closed while they’re fixing the foundations,” he said. “Some of those really nitty-gritty, but super important things.”
On the other hand, all three members of the delegation cited another relatively small item — cutting what was $15 million in child care provider assistance to $7.5 million as part of the last-minute dealmaking — among the areas where the budget fell regrettably short. While Hannan said that’s a “drop in the bucket” compared to all spending on such programs, it has a snowball effect.
“We have empty buckets and we need to start filling them because a huge piece of the workforce’s ability is parents can’t go to work if their kids aren’t supervised,” she said.
The intention of the $15 million was to lure and retain child care providers by raising average wages from about $14-$15 an hour to roughly $20 an hour. Gov. Mike Dunleavy — if he doesn’t veto the remaining funds — will thus need to make a meaningful decision about how it is allocated, Kiehl said.
“Does he raise them $1.50 an hour (as of July 1) or does he start it in December?” he said. “The need is immediate — the need is yesterday. And I don’t know if $1.50 or two bucks an hour is enough to move the needle at all.”
Such issues were overwhelmed by the attention paid to a handful of major items, especially an increase in the base student allocation for education and the size of the Permanent Fund dividend. Ultimately, the Senate mostly got its way with a final budget containing an 11% one-time increase in education spending and a $1,300 PFD — which while far smaller than the dividend of about $2,700 or more sought by Dunleavy and the House majority, don’t incur the sizeable deficit the larger payments would have caused.
“In the end the Senate passed a responsible budget which is why the House minority voted for it, I think,” Kiehl said. “Getting enough House majority votes to concur wasn’t pretty, but a month-long special session or playing the dice with a shutdown would have been a lot uglier.”
The remaining step is seeing if Dunleavy vetoes some or all of the budget bill, since he generally doesn’t telegraph his intentions ahead of time, Kiehl said.
“I will tell you I have all my fingers and all of my toes crossed for the university deferred maintenance money,” he said. “Because those roofs and aging buried oil tanks at UAS just above the lake we have funded twice and he has vetoed twice. We are funding them a third time. If we end up with structural damage, leaky roofs and oil seeping off toward the lake we will regret it.”
Legislative wins and losses
During the final hours of the regular session, Kiehl was among the few individual legislators able to claim victory by getting the provisions of his bill banning PFAS chemicals for most firefighting — which passed the Senate, but ran out of time in the House — added to a bill involving refrigerants bought to a final floor vote by Rep. Stanley Wright, an Anchorage Republican. Kiehl said he suggested the merger since both proposals dealt with chemical safety.
“We talked through all the possibilities,” he said. “He went and actually talked with other legislators he respects and shares philosophy with, and wanted to make sure he wasn’t endangering his bill or doing anything that would be seen as untoward, and I promised him that I was looking for a handshake, but this was not a hijacking.”
Hannan almost, but not quite, got to claim victory on a bill she introduced raising the age to purchase tobacco products to 21 and imposing a 25% sales tax on vaping products. A companion introduced by Senate President Gary Stevens, a Kodiak Republican, easily passed the Senate and he was hopeful the House would pass it before adjournment — and Dunleavy wouldn’t veto is as he did last year with a similar bill.
Instead, the likely scenario is the House will consider it next year if so inclined. Hannan said she’s hoping the emphasis virtually all legislators are voicing about a long-term fiscal plan will be a motivator to get the bill passed since it will have more immediate results than proposals that could bring in larger sums, such as Dunleavy’s efforts to enter to carbon credits markets.
“It’s not billions, but it’s $3 million a year passed,” she said. “Carbon sequestration, it probably isn’t going to generate revenue for a couple of fiscal years. Those fields are much more complex. But I think meanwhile we need to still make progress on revenue, whether it’s small amounts of revenue to deal with health impacts from nicotine addiction like a vape tax or more complex ones.”
Story’s biggest accomplishment on her bills was adding three Alaska Native languages to those recognized by the state, along with expanding the size and role of an Alaska Native language council. It passed the House with a single dissenting vote, but stalled in the Senate Finance Committee, where it was sent nine days before adjournment.
“Unfortunately, it got caught up in that finance block where they’re hearing budget bills and they don’t want to work on policy bills, even though we’ve been jumping up and down and waving and saying ‘This is just something that should happen,’” she said. “So that is the hard part when we get towards the end of session, because budget things take up so much time.”
In another partial win, Story also got enough majority support to alter a bill increasing the BSA formula from a single year to a two-year staged increase, emphasizing the importance of districts knowing what funds will be available when they begin planning next year’s budgets this fall. But the provisions of that bill also stalled despite some maneuverings during the final few days to get it passed.
“It means when they start the budget process in November they’re going to have to minus that one-time money,” she said. “So districts and the community are going to be hearing (that) and they’re going to have to plan for the school board members. What are we going to cut? It continues that instability.”
That was among the instances when being in the minority caucus impeded key goals, Story said.
“I think we could have gotten the BSA bill over the finish line if we would have had the gavel,” she said.
Hannan, as a first-time member of the House Finance Committee, did have a say in helping the minority caucus get some adjustments pushed through with the help of a few crossover votes from majority committee members. Among those was restoring some, if not all, funding to ensure some pubic broadcasting services remain active in remote areas.
“We have so many rural stations where they’re beyond where a commercial broadcaster signal is reaching,” she said. “And it’s the place where you can get weather, you can get emergency warnings. Yeah, it may also run the mukluk trap line messaging system, and it may repeat the jazz show out of Nome or Fairbanks, but that million dollars to keep them open was very focused.”
Another success was getting $5 million added to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, the first state funding it has received in several years, which will serve as an escalator for other economic gains after the industry was among those hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, Hannan said.
“It does a lot of ancillary marketing — you know, the beautiful pictures of Alaska — it’s not just the seafood there,” she said. “It also carries the message in the image of Alaska and, whether that’s for your tourism trade or your reality TV show, getting Alaska’s economics out there in front of people is helpful.”
On other other hand, several things from the Mental Health Trust Authority weren’t fully funded, which for instance might limit the implementation of a new crisis intervention care program at Bartlett Regional Hospital, Hannan said. As with child care, the snowball effect there is full funding for such programs may result police, prison and court costs.
Story also noted that funding for a home-based senior and disability services program was cut in half as part of the late negotiations.
“How is that helping people stay in their home?” she said.
While Hannan and Story expressed largely similar opinions about the successes and failures of the session, there were multiple occasions when their votes differed on the House floor.
In a notable example at the end of the session, Story voted in favor of a high-profile bill negating pay raises for legislators and top executive branch members. Hannan voted against, saying later “I think it is time for lawmakers to be paid adequately so that it is not a job that is only done by retirees or people with personal wealth.”
Both legislators said that while discussions about legislation are common during weekly meetings the local delegation has, the differences in floor votes are never contentious.
“We had different reasons for doing that,” Story said, referring to the pay raises bill. “And, you know, I can understand her rationale and I think she can understand mine. We’re two different people so we’re not going to always think alike.”
What’s ahead for this year and next
One of Kiehl’s main priorities — which was also called one of the Senate majority’s top two goals — was changing public pensions so that a fixed-benefits option abolished in 2006 is again allowed in addition to the 401k-style benefits that now exist.
Majority leaders acknowledged several weeks ago getting such a change through the Legislature wasn’t possible this year, but the Senate Finance Committee held a multi-hour meeting during the final week of the regular session to hear a new report with cost projections that may make the debate even more of a struggle next year.
“I think it’s fair to say we were we were gobsmacked,” Kiehl said. “Their assumptions were wildly different than they used on a similar bill a year ago. They just came out of nowhere with this thing.”
Nonetheless, Kiehl said he’s hoping the Senate gets a bill to the House by February for what he expects will be a tough fight to get it through that chamber.
“I believe the votes are there, but you’ve got to get it to the floor,” he said.
Story, while emphasizing a permanent change to the BSA formula is a primary goal next year, said other education deficiencies also remain.
She said her effort to modernize the Alaska Performance Scholarship program is still pending and funding issues remain for the Alaska Reads Act passed last year. Complicating all of those proposals seeking to make long-range changes to education is how election-year politics will affect lawmakers’ willingness to act.
“Next year, I’m going to be running into ‘Oh, we’re going to set the intention for people who are not going to be here,’” she said.
While many legislators running for reelection might not want to claim they made a large cut in education funding if the increase this year isn’t carried over in some form, other considerations may also determine if even a same-level scenario is possible, Kiehl said
“The risk comes from our unstable fiscal situation,” he said. “Right now, a little more than a third of our income depends on what the price of oil is. If the revenue goes to pot, schools are at risk.”
Hannan said another big item needing to be solved next year is fixing problems that led to the crisis-level backlog in processing food stamp applications that surfaced last September and is expected to continue at least through October. A combination of staffing and equipment issues are cited by program officials for the backlog to that and other public assistance programs. She also emphasized the need for pension reform to lure employees in such occupations, as well as others with crisis-level shortages such as health care.
While the to-do lists for next year are already long, it’s a pretty sure bet they’ll get longer before the second year of the two-year session gavels in next January, Kiehl said.
“I guarantee constituents will come in through the interim and say ‘You know, I’ve got an idea,’ which is the best source of legislation and ideas I’ve got, and has been the source of most of my bills,” he said. “So I don’t know yet, but I feel pretty confident that there’ll be more bills to as long as there are more problems to fix there will be more bills to file.”