Editor’s note: As this year’s regular legislative session nears it’s scheduled May 17 adjournment, this is a live blog-style roundup of things the Empire is covering, as well as other items of interest and bits of weirdness from the Capitol.
WEDNESDAY, MAY 17
Update 10 p.m.
The House adjourned at about 9:15 p.m. after refusing to consider the Senate’s version of the budget, prompting Gov. Mike Dunleavy to immediately call for a 30-day special session beginning at 10 a.m. Thursday. Senate leaders said they passed a balanced budget that increased education funding and a reasonable Permanent Fund dividend. House leaders said they felt largely shut out of the process, and want a conference committee to thoroughly and publicly work out the differences between the two chambers.
Update 8:50 p.m.
It appears the House needs a two-thirds vote to waive the rules and take up the budget bill tonight instead of 24 hours from now, which majority caucus members seem unwilling to support. Kevin McCabe, a Big Lake Republican, said taking up the sizeable budget bill and its details an hour after getting the revised version from the Senate “would be a huge mistake.” The House now is taking what supposedly will be a 15-minute recess.
Update 8 p.m.
The House has gaveled in with four hours until the deadline for adjournment. While there’s considerable doubt the budget will pass, they are taking up other bills. The first was a major victory for Juneau state Sen. Jesse Kiehl, as the provisions of a bill banning PFAS chemicals for most firefighting purposes were pasted into another bill that the House just gave final approval to.
Update 6:30 p.m.
The Senate has adjourned for the year and left the fate of the budget — and a special session — in the House’s hands.
It appears the Republican-led House majority as a group isn’t willing to vote for the budget, which includes a $1,300 PFD and no draw on reserve funds. The alternative would be the 16-member House minority gets five crossover votes. Last-minute amendments made by the Senate included some capital projects funding in rural and other districts, which some legislators said may be an effort to sway individual votes.
A notable moment occurred when Senate President Gary Stevens appointed a three-member conference committee that would negotiate a compromise budget with the House during a special session if the latter fails to pass a budget by the midnight adjournment deadline.
The House majority is meeting behind closed doors and the Senate leaders are scheduled to speak to the media at 6:45 p.m.
Update 5:30 p.m.
A potentially crucial development occurred as the Senate approved an amendment to the budget bill that cuts about $82.4 million in spending, according to Sen. Bert Stedman, a Sitka Republican who co-chairs the Senate Finance Committee. The trims eliminate $40 million set aside in case of a state government shutdown, and reduces some Department of Health allocations including child care, home community-based and Medicaid programs. The Senate also apparently is — for now — giving up on a permanent change to the per-student funding formula, instead accepting a one-time increase of $680 a student this year and resuming debate on a permanent change next year. The Senate bill also now contains a provision that would give Alaska residents an “energy dividend” of up to $500 to supplement Permanent Fund dividends next year if oil prices for the coming fiscal year are higher than expected.
It’s unknown if the Republican-led House majority caucus has enough support to pass the amended version of the budget, but some members who visited House Speaker Cathy Tilton’s office after the amendment was passed looked displeased. An unorthodox move would be for the 16-member House minority to convince five members to cross over and vote for the budget bill. Four members of the House majority are Democrats and independents who comprise the Bush caucus, but at least one other lawmaker would need to join them for the bill to pass.
Update 5:15 p.m.
A pause in the Senate floor session, occurring when House leaders requested a closed-door meeting with Senate leaders, lasted nearly an hour. The Senate has resumed its session and is about to start debating the budget bill that needs to pass both chambers in less than seven hours to avoid a special session.
Update 4:15 p.m.
The Senate graveled in at about 4 p.m., with eight hours left until adjournment, and passed a House bill to ensure Alaska’s pharmacy regulations are in compliance with federal standards that will be mandatory in November. While the dominant attention of lawmakers is on the budget, Senate Majority Leader Cathy Giessel, an Anchorage Republican, emphasized the importance of getting the measure passed by today’s deadline so it can be sent to the governor. The Senate is now in an at ease discussing how to proceed on the budget.
Update 2:45 p.m.
With just over nine hours to go until the adjournment deadline on a flawlessly sunny day, the doings in the halls of the Capitol continue to lurk in the shadows as legislators wander in and out of offices. Some are discussing serious business, other reliving memories of strange final days from past years. Clusters of folks are having water cooler chats in places like the coffee urns by the Senate floor to the platter of garlic treats a staffer from Norway put in the hall outside the Senate Finance Committee officer to celebrate her home country’s national holiday of Syttende Mai (Norwegian for “May 17”). The collective murmurings are still split on whether a special session will occur, but since some lawmakers are currently clad in T-shirts it doesn’t appear floor sessions are starting soon.
Update 1:30 p.m.
Both the House and Senate floor sessions remain on hold with 10 ½ hours until the adjournment deadline. Numerous meetings involving various groups of House and Senate members are occurring in offices, with moods of participants exiting and entering ranging from cheery to angry. Most the Capitol however, remains quiet aside from tourists mostly interested in the historic and decorate features rather than political happenings, and legislators and staff chatting casually as they wait to see what happens once one or both chambers gavel in.
Update 12:15 p.m.
Both the House and Senate remain delayed to a call of the chair with less than 12 hours until the deadline for adjournment. The Senate Finance Committee did meet briefly to advance House Bill 112 by Soldotna Republican Rep. Justin Ruffridge that ensures the Alaska Board of Pharmacy’s powers and duties are aligned with federal and other states’ regulations, so that it can be passed by the Senate before adjournment. Similar action on a number of other housekeeping bills is possible in addition to whatever action occur on major issues such as the budget and amount of the Permanent Fund dividend.
Update 11 a.m.
Will they or won’t they? To be or not to be?
Whatever yes-or-no cliché people favor, the final day of the regular legislative session comes down to a binary option. Either lawmakers pass a budget and adjourn on time or they don’t.
If it’s the latter, then the question becomes if the Legislature votes themselves a 10-day extension — seen as unlikely since it requires a two-thirds vote of each chamber — or Gov. Mike Dunleavy orders a 30-day special session either immediately or at some near-term date that allows a budget to be passed before the new fiscal year begins July 1.
Both the House and Senate floor sessions were scheduled to start at 11 a.m., but the Senate is delayed until a call of the chair. That matters because the Senate currently has the budget bill and must pass it before the House gets a chance to agree or disagree with its provisions. With 13 hours until the deadline for adjournment, delays can either mean progress is being made in closed-door negotiations or lawmakers are running out of options.
While most people in the building are prepared to put in a long day until the midnight deadline (and beyond to literally and figuratively clean up things), a feasible short-day scenario is if the House gavels its session in and then adjourns without taking up the budget (which likely would be accompanied by regretful floor speeches) if the majority caucus believes a special session is necessary to resolve remaining issues.
TUESDAY, MAY 16
Update 4:30 p.m.
The Senate has upped the gamesmanship with the House by adjourning for the day without taking action on the budget bill, meaning a compromise plan will need to be debated by and pass through both chambers during a 13-hour period Wednesday to avoid a special session. Senate President Gary Stevens said the budget was not debated or passed during Tuesday’s floor session because differences with the House have not been resolved, and he doesn’t want to send a bill to them that fails to pass and thus ensures a special session. House Speaker Cathy Tilton had no immediate comment about the Senate’s action, but she and other members of the Republican-led majority clearly appeared displeased. Passing the budget through both chambers in a single day will require some unusual, but not overly complex, parliamentary moves.
Update 2 p.m.
Two more pieces of the legislative chess puzzle have moved as the House Finance Committee advanced Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s carbon credits bill and a Senate bill that now contains an increase to the Base Student Allocation. The meeting adjourned at about 1:40 p.m. and the House is scheduled to start its floor session at about 2 p.m. with the carbon bill on the calendar. The education bill is among the pieces that are part of negotiations between the House and Senate as they try to agree on a budget by tomorrow’s scheduled adjournment.
A bill prohibiting state and municipal officials from closing firearms businesses such as retail stores and shooting ranges during declared disasters passed the state Senate by a 17-3 vote, clearing the way for it to be sent to Gov. Mike Dunleavy. House Bill 61 is sponsored by House Speaker Cathy Tilton, a Wasilla Republican, making it a potential piece of the puzzle in getting legislative leaders to conclude necessary business before tomorrow’s scheduled adjournment. The Senate removed a provision added during a committee hearing Sunday stating firearms retailers can’t be treated differently than other businesses, adding an exemption for “grocery stores, pharmacies, medical facilities, and businesses that provide housing, including rental accommodations, hotels, and motels.” Tilton opposed the amendment and Senators voting for the change said firearms businesses shouldn’t be subject to more restrictions than others considered essential. State Sen. Jesse Kiehl was one of the dissenting votes, arguing among other things it “elevates in Alaska law the Second Amendment above all the rest of our rights.”
Update 10:30 a.m.
Like chess, an actual analogy used by one lawmaker, today appears to be about positioning pieces for the endgame tomorrow. Only instead of the House and Senate being opponents, the hope among members is they’re joining together to beat the clock.
A feasible plan to pass a budget and top-priority bills for all sides exists as of Tuesday morning, but as one architect of the plan noted Monday night the prospects of adjourning by Wednesday’s deadline appeared grim just 24 hours earlier and might again if remaining differences revive tensions.
“That changes by the hour,” said state Rep. Neal Foster, a Nome Democrat who co-chairs the House Finance Committee. “And if I were to try to guess when we’re gonna get out of here I would be a genius.”
Foster’s committee is scheduled to meet at 10:30 a.m. — although as with the rest of the schedule during the Last Days time is largely an abstract concept — to consider two bills in particular. One would fulfill a Senate priority by permanently increasing the Base Student Allocation funding formula for schools, the other would fulfill a priority of Gov. Mike Dunleavy by allowing the state to enter the carbon credits market. Amendments to both bills will be heard today, with the intention of allowing a final floor vote Wednesday by the House and the Senate then quickly concurring before adjournment.
If those happen, the major remaining item to resolve will be the size of this year’s Permanent Fund dividend and if reserve funds will be necessary to pay for it. The bipartisan Senate majority and mostly Democratic House minority are opposing tapping reserves as they propose a $1,300 PFD, while the Republican-led House majority is favoring a $2,700 PFD that would require $600 million in reserves. A compromise of a $2,000 PFD that would result in a deficit of $150 million to $200 million, if other parts of the budget remain unchanged, was among the options discussed by legislative leaders Monday.
Besides those efforts to allow adjournment on time, both the House and Senate are scheduled to vote on numerous other bills.
The most notable House bill would reject a 67% salary increase for legislators approved by a commission earlier this year, as well as changing some of the rules for the commission that made their sudden action highly controversial. Senate leaders have said they have no interest in passing the bill.
The Senate is scheduled to vote on a bill raising the age to purchase tobacco products to 21 and imposing a 25% tax on vaping products, and give initial consideration to a bill prohibiting the closure of firearms businesses during declared disasters. The budget bill is also on the Senate floor, with the expectation it will be amended further — whether in tiny or significant ways remains to be seen — before it is sent to the House for a take-it-or-leave-it vote Wednesday.
MONDAY, MAY 15
Update 10 p.m.
Suddenly some legislators and staff are saying there may be hope of adjourning on time.
Some big late-night maneuvers are underway as the entire base student allocation bill that passed the Senate last Thursday has been pasted by the House Finance Committee into a separate bill dealing with internet funding for schools. The committee is also hearing the carbon credit “trees” bill that passed the Senate earlier today, which now appears on the House floor calendar tomorrow.
The upshot is both actions could be part of an attempted deal before the session is scheduled to adjourn Wednesday, since the BSA bill is one of the Senate majority’s top two priorities and the carbon bill is among Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s most-discussed goals. House and Senate leaders also met during the day to discuss various possible compromises that included a “midpoint” PFD of $2,000, although the Senate reportedly is still averse to the idea because it results in a deficit of hundreds of millions of dollars.
However, the carbon bill might allow lawmakers to state they’ve started the process of securing a new long-range revenue source, with one state study saying money from a pilot program could be earned as soon as the coming fiscal year, even if that amount is tiny compared to the likely deficit of a compromise PFD. Legislators could also in theory cut more than $150 million from the $357 million in capital spending and still meet the “bare bones” minimum needed to qualify for all federal matching grants awarded to listed projects, although Senate leaders have expressed strong support for the additional state funding.
There also is likely to be more intrigue with the BSA bill provisions on Tuesday. The provisions contained in SB 52 — which includes a $680 BSA increase (11%), $5 million for student transportation and various accountability measures — were added as amendments into SB 140, which deals with broadband assistance grants to schools, following consultation with legislative attorneys to ensure the move was legal. A further amendment by a member of the majority proposed doubling the total increase of $1,360 — essentially matching the high-end amount sought by education advocates at the beginning of the session— but committee co-chair Rep. Neal Foster, a Nome Democrat, put the bill on hold until Tuesday “to let cooler heads prevail.”
Update 7 p.m.
The Alaska Landmine reported Monday evening the Republican-led House majority is proposing to resolve the budget standoff with a compromise PFD of $2,000 — about halfway between the Senate’s estimated $1,300 dividend and the House’s $2,700 — but the bipartisan Senate majority is rejecting it because it still results in a deficit that would require hundreds of millions in reserve funds to cover. House Speaker Cathy Tilton and House Rules Chair Craig Johnson, when asked by the Empire about the report, both stated the House majority isn’t currently advocating for such a dividend, but a range of options including a PFD of that amount were discussed with Senate leaders Monday.
Update 6 p.m.
There was slight movement on resolving differences between the House and Senate on their budget differences Monday, according to legislative leaders, but the situation at the end of the day is much the same as when it started with the Senate expected to pass its version of next year’s state budget tomorrow after making additional amendments to a few technical changes made Monday. The budget bill would then be sent to the House, which would cast a take-it-or-leave it vote on the session’s final scheduled day. If the latter occurs a special session will follow either immediately or beginning on some announced date in the near future.
An intriguing item that surfaced three times during the Senate floor session Monday is the proposed state takeover of wetlands development permits (commonly referred to as “404” permits) from the federal government. Two budget amendments adding about $5 million to fund the takeover next year both failed by votes of 9-11. A separate non-binding resolution asking Congress to fund states doing such takeovers passed 18-2 — with Sen. Jesse Kiehl, a Juneau Democrat, casting a rare dissenting vote as part of a minuscule minority. “My concerns don’t change with the funding source,” he said after the floor session.
Update 2 p.m.
The Senate unanimously passed a bill authorizing Alaska to enter the carbon capture market, which essentially would involve leasing large areas of natural areas such as forests to companies or other entities interested in buying carbon credits. Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who introduced the bill, and other supporters say it may potentially add hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue within a few years. But two senators who said they voted reluctantly for the bill, voiced concerns such as possibly locking off areas of the state to resource development and allowing adversarial nations such as China to lease such land. The bill is now expected to get a same-day referral by the House to the House Finance Committee for consideration this afternoon. Quick passage of the bill could be among the bargaining chips as the Senate, House and Dunleavy try to resolve their budget differences before the session adjourns Wednesday.
Update 9:45 a.m.
With two days until adjournment, Monday’s schedule resembles the opening act of a well-known three-act play: the storyline may be predictable on paper, but anything can happen on a live stage.
The Senate is scheduled to take up the budget bill, and a bunch of other legislation, during its floor session scheduled to start at 11 a.m. Amendments will be debated and then, if the bipartisan majority wants, the budget bill itself will be debated and passed (the most feasible alternative is the vote on the bill itself occurs tomorrow).
Next the House be asked to concur with the budget bill the day after it passes the Senate (either Tuesday or Wednesday). It appears almost certain that won’t happen because, among other things, the Republican-led majority opposes the so-called “72-25” Permanent Fund earnings clause. The provision directs the larger share to state spending and the smaller share to dividends, which would be about $1,300. The House majority is seeking a “50-50” plan that results in dividends and $2,700 budget — and $600 million deficit both the House minority and Senate majority say they are unwilling to support by tapping into reserve funds.
That means, while it’s a logical certainty there will be plenty of closed-door discussions about resolving differences during the next few days, the third act will occur when Gov. Mike Dunleavy orders a 30-day special session. He can order it to begin immediately or on a specific date, but 1) a budget must be approved before the start of the fiscal year and 2) legislative leaders have said members are planning to take a few days off after Wednesday to rest and allow tensions to cool. Sen. Bert Stedman, a Sitka Republican who co-chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said last week he’s been through several special sessions and it’s not uncommon for most of the 30 days to pass and have lawmakers remain in the same standoff they were at the start.
The House, meanwhile, has a light floor calendar of two items. One that will likely get some discussion would have the Alaska Permanent Fund Corp. take over management the $1 billion Power Cost Equalization Endowment Fund, which is currently managed by the state Department of Revenue. The fund, according to the department’s website, is intended to help ensure “affordable levels of electric utility costs in otherwise high-cost service areas of the state.”
SUNDAY, MAY 14
Whether legislators were willing to work on Mother’s Day was questioned earlier this week by House Speaker Cathy Tilton, a Wasilla Republican, but floor sessions for both the House and Senate were initially scheduled this afternoon. But both were canceled by mid-morning Sunday, leaving just three days to conduct floor businesses before Wednesday’s scheduled adjournment.
However, with legislative leaders now saying a special session is likely due to a budget stalemate, the adjournment deadline may not feel as pressing as a week ago.
An intriguing item of business that remains on today’s schedule is a 2 p.m. meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee meeting to consider Tilton’s bill that prohibits the closure of gun stores and other firearms-related limitations during declared emergencies. The committee is chaired by state Sen. Matt Claman, an Anchorage Democrat, whose high-profile bill allowing involuntary commitment in psychiatric facilities of certain people considered dangerous for up to two years is stalled in the House Judiciary Committee.
That raises the obvious question of a trade where advancing Tilton’s bill will lead to Claman’s bill also being removed from its committee, which would clear a path for both proposals to pass the full Legislature before adjournment. But people directly involved in both proposals say no such trade exists — and each bill has enough support on its own to clear their respective committees.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to consider amendments to Tilton’s bill before it gets a floor vote, meaning the House will need to concur with those changes before it is sent to Gov. Mike Dunleavy. Meanwhile, a member of the House’s Republican-led majority told the Anchorage Daily News in Friday that Claman’s bill “will get out of that (House Judiciary Committee), one way or another.”
A headline-grabbing House floor fight involving Claman’s bill occurred on Friday that started with a failed vote to pass a bill by state Rep. Sarah Vance involving Israel boycotts. That led to motions to have two bills, including Claman’s, discharged from Vance’s committee, based on the belief she would refuse to allow them to advance, but the motions failed. But another effort to move Claman’s bill remains a possibility.
When the House and Senate gavel in for floor sessions Monday, each will have major budget-related bills scheduled.
The Senate has by far the most important one, as amendments and possibly a floor vote are scheduled on the single omnibus bill that contains the operating, capital and supplemental allocations. But even if it passes Monday, the House is not expected to concur with changes made since it passed that chamber, primarily due to the sizable differences related to the amount of the Permanent Fund dividend and how to pay for it. That standoff is seen as the primary reason a special session will be called.
The House is scheduled to consider spending-cap bill that in theory could provoke a lengthy debate and lots of proposed amendments. Tilton last week said a spending cap is now a priority for the majority caucus before adjournment. But there’s a huge “if” regarding whether it gets heard since it’s still in the House Finance Committee and thus its members will either have to vote to advance it or some other procedural move will be necessary to get it the floor.
The bill originally set a limit roughly equal to current state spending, with available funding based on the state’s GNP, but exempted the money needed to pay Permanent Fund dividends. But the House Finance Committee altered the bill to include funding PFDs, potentially raising the cap by billion-dollar amounts. That led to an angry outburst from state Rep. Ben Carpenter, a Nikiski Republican who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee that was evaluating bills to create a multi-part long-term fiscal plan, who during a two-minute meeting Friday night denounced the new cap as meaningless.
The Senate as of Sunday has a packed calendar of seven bills and resolutions scheduled for floor votes Monday. Besides the budget, the legislation includes seeking new state revenues through carbon offset credits, raising the age to purchase tobacco products to 21 and imposing a 25% tax on vaping products, changes to voter registration and tracking rules, and requesting Congress to provide funding for states seeking to take over wetlands development permitting from the federal government.
SATURDAY, MAY 13
Update 4:45 p.m.
The likelihood of a special session is looming larger after House leaders said Saturday they’re feeling “cut out of this process” by the Senate, and want a conference committee where both chambers are negotiating on equal terms. But with the Senate reportedly now scheduled to debate amendments on its version of a budget bill Sunday or Monday there appears to be little realistic chance a conference committee could then draft a compromise bill that each chamber subsequently votes on before adjournment on Wednesday. “I think the only way we work out our differences is through a conference committee,” said House Rules Chair Craig Johnson, an Anchorage Republican, during a brief press meeting with other House Leaders. House Speaker Cathy Tilton, a Wasilla Republican, said “would there be time in two days to do a conference committee? Most likely not.”
Update 3:30 p.m.
House and Senate leaders met behind closed doors in the House Speaker’s chambers for roughly 90 minutes Saturday afternoon seeking to resolve budget and other differences, but no major movement was acknowledged by lawmakers emerging from the room. The House is resuming the rest of its floor session and the Senate — after delaying its floor session so the Senate Finance Committee could spend an extended period of time on a state employee pension reform bill — is scheduled to begin its floor session soon.
Update 1 p.m.
A Senate bill requiring the state to provide prison inmates with official IDs upon their release unanimously passed the House, clearing the way for its transmission to Gov. Mike Dunleavy. Rep. Andrew Gray, an Anchorage Democrat who sponsored a House version of the bill, said photo IDs are needed for a wide range of necessary purposes including obtaining housing and medical care, and even for such purposes as renting a hotel room (noting one former inmate he talked to was turned away from an Anchorage hotel at night in February due to the lack of an ID). “Reentry is an essential part of public safety,” he said. Rep. Sara Hannan, a Juneau Democrat, said newly appointed Department of Corrections Commissioner and Juneau resident Jen Winkelman played a key role in getting lawmakers to introduce and pass the policy. Legislative fiscal notes indicate the bill will have no significant fiscal cost to the state for issuing the IDs.
Update 12:20 p.m.
The House spent a considerable and unexpected length of time on a bill extending the Board of Certified Direct-Entry Midwives, due to a letter received Friday by a representative from a top official at Providence Alaska Medical Center expressing concerns about regulation changes made by the board that she assets may increase dangers for high-risk patients. The official requested the bill’s four-year extension of the board be reduced to a single year so the public and medical communities can assess the safety implications of the changes. The bill that originated in and unanimously passed the Senate, which also extends the life of the State Medical Board, generally had widespread support from medical officials and associations during committee hearings. The House approved an amendment shortening the extension to two years and subsequently passed the bill by a 39-1 vote.
Update 11:20 a.m.
The Senate Finance Committee has moved its omnibus budget bill out of committee, setting the stage for it to be heard in the floor at 1 p.m. There were no changes made during a relatively brief discussion, meaning the differences with the House remain unresolved.
The committee is also hearing a bill to boost state employee pensions by allowing a fixed-benefits system rather than the current 401K-style plan, even though lawmakers in the House and Senate agree it has no chance of passage this year. But it is cited by the Senate majority as one of their top two priorities and they passed the other one — increasing the per-student education funding formula — earlier this week even though that bill also seemingly has no chance of getting through the House before adjournment. Passage of the school funding bill did, however, get widespread notice and praise from educators.
Update 11 a.m.
The House floor session, which started about 20 minutes past its 10 a.m. schedule, skipped the spending cap bill that was at the top of its calendar since it’s still in the House Finance Committee and returned the controversial Israel discrimination bill to the Rules Committee, suggesting it still lacks the vote to pass after Friday’s 20-20 vote.
Update 10 a.m.
The Capitol calendar is packed, but doesn’t necessarily reflect what and when is happening during the final weekend before Wednesday’s scheduled adjournment of this year’s session.
The most important item is the budget — which now combines the usually separate operating, capital and supplemental proposals into a single omnibus bill — which according to the schedule will be heard by the Senate Finance Committee at 10 a.m. and then get sent to the floor for consideration at 1 p.m. Whether that happens will depend on multiple factors, including resolving some key difference with the House since that chamber also needs to approve the bill.
Meanwhile, a sure sign of scheduling surreality is in the House, which is scheduled to start it’s floor session at 10 a.m. and has nine bills on the calendar, some of which are near certain to result in lengthy debate such as imposing a cap on state spending (although it may not actually be heard since it’s still listed as pending in the House Finance Committee). Nonetheless, the Finance Committee meeting also has a seemingly implausible meeting at 11 a.m. to consider a Senate capital budget bill that hasn’t passed that chamber — and, as noted above, has been wrapped into a different bill.
If that’s a bit confusing to follow, it’s enough to know that it’s a reminder the items listed below may or may not happen as planned due to the irregular pace of the session’s final days (assuming there isn’t a special session, which lawmakers are saying is increasingly likely).
– Notable bills in the House getting their first floor consideration — meaning amendments will likely be debated today and the votes on the bills will occur during the next floor session — include the budget spending cap, limiting interest rates on payday loans of $25,000 or less to 36% and requiring the state to provide official ID cards to prison inmates upon their release. A bill prohibiting discrimination by insurers against elected officials for their political views is scheduled for a vote and a reconsideration vote may occur on a bill which failed to pass in a turbulent 20-20 vote Friday that bans public agencies from contracting with companies that discriminate against Israel.
Bills in the Senate — where the majority is large enough to vote on bills the same day they reach the floor — include the budget if it arrives, authoritizing the state to seek revenue by entering the carbon offsets market, raising the age to purchase tobacco products to 21 and imposing a 25% tax on vaping products, making a number of voting registration changes designed to improve record keeping and tracking, establishing June 9 as Don Young Day, and a non-binding resolution asking Congress to provide staff funding for states that want to take over wetlands development permitting from the federal government.
FRIDAY, MAY 12
Update 9 p.m.
“It’s getting real” echoed throughout the Alaska State Capitol on a frenzied Friday leading into the last weekend of the session, as nearly 15 bills were heard on the House and Senate floors during the day and nearly 20 are scheduled for the first (and only) Saturday floor sessions.
Adding to the frenzied pace — which involved a similar pace of action by committees that in some cases were meeting for the last time — were peculiar comments and antics by legislators as the fortunes of their favored proposals rose and (mostly) fell.
The one constitutionally mandated action — passing a budget — took at least a symbolic step forward as the bill enacting it is on the Senate’s floor calendar for its scheduled 1 p.m. start Saturday. But the bill remains in the Senate Finance Committee, where it’s sat for two weeks past the date it was supposed to advance out, and its prospects of reaching the floor depending a 10 a.m. meeting by the committee Saturday.
Regardless, even if the Senate passes the budget bill this weekend it won’t mean much if differences with the House — primarily over the size of the PFD and how to pay for it — can’t be resolved in time for adjournment.
Perhaps the most succinct summary of the day’s oddities can be seen in the two-minute meeting the House Ways and Means Committee held starting at 6:46 p.m. Rep. Ben Carpenter, a Nikiski Republican who chairs the committee, adjourned the meeting after delivering a statement denouncing the House Finance Committee for gutting what he called “an effective spending limit” in a bill putting a cap on state expenditures.
“The effort that I have put forward and this committee has put forward to find a fiscal plan that puts together components that members could get around seems to have been thwarted tonight,” he said. A bill imposing a sales tax and cutting sales taxes was on the committee’s schedule, but “I am very hesitant to sent a revenue-generating measure to the rest of the body who is unwilling to install any sort of fiscal discipline in ourselves.”
Among the other notable actions taken by the Legislature on Friday:
— A turbulent effort to have the state take over wetlands development permitting from the federal government got a jolt — but it remains to be seen if its a meaningful one — when a resolution asking Congress to provide funding to states doing such takeovers was introduced on the Senate floor, then heard and passed out of its only committee referral a few hours later. It is scheduled to be heard on the Senate floor Saturday. Gov. Mike Dunleavy is advocating for the takeover, arguing it would increase and speed up permitting, but fellow Republican lawmakers are raising concerns about the cost of staffing. Sen. Click Bishop, a Fairbanks Republican who introduced the resolution, said “I’m waving the flag; I want to keep it in people’s focus” when asked in an interview if the measure is an effort or trade-off to get Dunleavy to compromise on other issues where there are still differences with the Senate including the budget.
— The Senate also boosted another priority of Dunleavy’s, allowing Alaska to enter the carbon credits market in the hope of generating new revenue, advancing a bill to earn such credits by leaving natural areas such as forests unharvested passed out of the Senate Finance Committee. It is also scheduled to be heard on the Senate floor Saturday.
— Repealing a requirement that a person have an Alaska driver’s license for a one year before getting a commercial driver’s license was unanimously approved by the House.
— Establishing October as Filipino American History Month passed the Senate by a 19-1 vote. The bill has already passed the House.
Update 2 p.m.
Some seriously contentious policking occurred on the House floor after a 20-20 vote that failed to pass a bill by Rep. Sarah Vance, a Homer Republican, prohibiting public agencies from contracting with anyone who boycotts or discriminates against Israel. Bills typically don’t come to the floor unless there’s enough votes to pass, so a long at-ease immediately ensued, during which various clusters of lawmakers discussed strategies for a reconsideration vote, which potentially could happen when the House meets again Saturday.
The palace intrigue saw an additional plot twist when Rep. Jennie Armstrong, an Anchorage Democrat, asked for her LGBTQ+ anti-discrimination bill to be discharged from the House Judiciary Committee chaired by Vance, based on the assumption the Homer representative — who on Thursday declared “Jesus alone” is the remedy for drug addiction — has no intention of allowing it to advance. That led to another long at-ease where it was implied that a lawmaker who voted against Vance’s Israel bill would change their vote if Armstrong’s request was approved.
“People like you make me sick,” Rep. Jamie Allard, an Eagle River Republican, exclaimed loudly in reaction to the supposed trade. (While comments during at-eases are officially off-limits to the media under most circumstances, an exception exists if the remarks can be clearly heard by members of the public in the audience galleries or elsewhere. Allard, who voted for Vance’s bill and subsequently against Armstrong’s request, also discussed the remark in media interviews after the floor session).
Armstrong’s request failed by an 18-22 vote and she said after the floor session that while that likely means there’s no chance for her bill to advance this year, “I never say never.” She also suggested a different outcome might have led to more intrigue in Vance’s bill.
“If (my bill) had been discharged it would have been interesting to see what happened next,” Armstrong said.
The skirmishes weren’t quite done. Another request to discharge a bill from Vance’s committee was made by Rep. Jesse Sumner, a Wasilla Republican, this time on a Senate bill that allows for two-year involuntary commitments in psychiatric facilities for people the state considers to be dangerous. The House Judiciary Committee gave an initial hearing to the bill Wednesday, but the concern was the bill wouldn’t move before the end of this year’s session.
After more at-ease discussion Sumner withdraw his request. The bill is scheduled to be heard by the Judiciary Committee on Friday afternoon.
Vance declined to answer questions from reporters after the floor session.
Update 10:30 a.m.
An eclectic mix of bustle and inactivity is occurring as the Legislature enters the final scheduled weekend of this year’s session. Numerous committees are canceling meetings today and for the five remaining days after, while the floor calendars are packed and plenty of meetings are occurring at sometimes odd hours among lawmakers trying to resolve their differences.
But there’s an increasingly resigned sense among everyone from top legislative leaders to security officers that a special session is inevitable since the House and Senate will fail to agree on and pass a budget by midnight next Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the stalemate on the biggest (and only constitutionally necessary) item of business lingers, some attention-getting bills are getting floor consideration today. The House is scheduled to vote on bills that would limit public access to records of marijuana convictions (which supporters say is largely to protect job seekers) and prohibit public agencies from contracting with anyone who boycotts or discriminates against Israel.
The Senate is scheduled to vote on bills making rural school districts eligible for better broadband grants and establishing October as Filipino American History Month. It is also scheduled to give initial consideration to a bill raising the age to purchase tobacco products to 21 instead of 19, and implementing a 25% tax on vaping products.
THURSDAY, MAY 11
Update 2:20 p.m.
An increase in the base student allocation for public schools passed the state Senate by a 16-3 vote after nearly three hours of debate that saw a dozen proposed amendments fail to pass by similarly lopsided votes. Senate Bill 52 increases the BSA by $680 — abut 11% — and also boosts transportation funding and implements performance measures. The bill now goes to the House, but the Republican-led majority has said their preference is a one-time $680 per-student increase for the coming year and to further discuss a permanent increase during next year’s session.
The House also passed a much-debated bill by an overwhelming margin, voting 35-5 in favor of a proposal by Gov. Mike Dunleavy imposing tougher penalties for some drug-related crimes. The House spent more than five hours over two days debating the measure, with supporters saying it will help stem a rapid increase in overdoses of drugs such as fentanyl. Opponents said it will do little to reduce demand for the drugs or help people struggling with addiction, and will likely result in more deaths due to people being afraid to report overdoses to hospitals and police. Juneau’s two Democratic representatives split their vote, with Andi Story supporting the bill and Sara Hannan voting in opposition.
Update 12 p.m.
The House passed a bill making gold and silver coins and bars legal tender for people willing to accept them by a 25-15 vote. State Rep. Kevin McCabe, a Big Lake Republican sponsoring House Bill 3, said gold coins have retained a consistent value over time while the U.S. dollar hasn’t, saying one gold coin that could buy a suit long ago could still buy one today, whereas the $20 that once bought a suit “might not even buy shoelaces for your shoes” today. Both of Juneau’s Democratic representatives, Sara Hannan and Andi Story, voted against the bill. Story said that her concerns include thew fluctuating value of gold and silver, which might affect consumer protections and whether people feel their purchases are retaining their purchase value.
Update 11:40 a.m.
A long debate about a bill banning state agencies from contracting with anyone who boycotts or discriminates against Israel got the state House off to a contentious start on a busy day. House Bill 2 by Rep. Sarah Vance, a Homer Republican, replicates policies in 33 other states, although the bill exempts the Alaska Permanent Fund Corp. Several amendments were unsuccessfully introduced Thursday that, among other things, sought to add Russia to the banned list as long as it occupies portions of Ukraine. Vance opposed the change, stating “it appears very far from the current underlying bill and would have impacts that we just do not understand as it has not been run through committee.” The bill is scheduled for a final floor vote on Friday.
Update 10 a.m.
An education funding boost in the Senate and tougher drug crime penalties in the House headline a long list of bills the Alaska State Legislature is scheduled to consider during floor sessions Thursday, less than one week before the scheduled adjournment of the session next Wednesday.
While the education funding increase in Senate Bill 52 is among the highest profile issues this session, the additional $680 per-student allocation (about 11%) as of now appears more likely to be a one-time increase that will be included as a separate item in the state budget since the House majority has stated it does not favor passing a permanent increase this year. SB 52 also contains additional funding for transportation, as well as requirements intended to evaluate schools’ performance and accountability.
The Senate has seven other bills on its floor calendar ranging from inter-state licensing compacts for physical therapists and speech-language specialists to making rural school districts in particular eligible for higher grants for broadband service to establishing October as Filipino American History Month.
The House has six bills on its calendar, but could end up having a longer floor session after members spent about three hours Wednesday debating amendments to a so-called “fentanyl bill” that toughens penalties for the manufacturer and distribution of certain illegal substances. House Bill 66, introduced by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, would make such actions resulting in death second-degree murder instead of manslaughter, eliminate “good time” credit for instances resulting in death and increase penalties for first-time offenders. Wednesday’s debate focused largely on what types of drugs should be eligible for increased punishments and under what circumstances.
Also on the House calendar is a vote on making gold and silver legal tender for people willing to accept it and making it illegal to interfere with emergency services such as 911 calls.
Potentially the most significant committee meeting Thursday will be when the House Finance Committee considers the capital projects budget at 1 p.m. The Senate Finance Committee has been holding its budget bills, saying they’re waiting House action on the capital budget, and with six days left until adjournment it appears lawmakers will need to take unusual parliamentary steps to get a spending plan approved in time — if they’re able to work out their differences. If they can’t, an option is for a special session either immediately or within a couple of weeks so a budget is passed before the next fiscal year begins July 1.
The committee meeting most likely to get public attention, however, is another hearing on a bill repealing ranked choice voting scheduled by the House Judiciary Committee at 1 p.m. Public testimony will be allowed and hearings by a previous committee saw the phone lines for people commenting from outside the Capitol jammed to capacity.
WEDNESDAY, MAY 10
Update 7 p.m.
The whirlwind stop-and-go pace marking the end of the legislative session is setting in with one week until the scheduled adjournment, as both the House and Senate are now meeting daily (instead of the previous three times a week), and both the floor and committee schedules are packed with a list of bills lawmakers are hoping to push through.
Wednesday’s House floor session lasted nearly five hours — including some long “at eases” to resolve issues beyond the public’s ear — most of it debating amendments on a trio of bills scheduled for final votes Thursday. The bills would make gold and silver legal tender for people willing to accept them as payment, toughen penalties for manufacturing or distributing certain illegal drugs — including making the resulting death of a person murder instead of manslaughter — and make it a crime to interfere with emergency communications, particularly 911 calls.
The longest debate was on what many lawmakers are simply calling the “fentanyl bill” — although it applies to some other drugs as well — and much of Tuesday’s debate focused on what drugs should be eligible for harder punishments and under what circumstances. Many lawmakers, for instances, cited instances where some of the included drugs are used for legitimate medical purposes or punishment may result from unusual circumstances such as a child who dies from a cough drop containing codeine.
But House Minority Leader Calvin Schrage, an Anchorage independent, said during a press availability Wednesday afternoon he supports the bill introduced by the Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy and expects it to pass Thursday’s floor vote.
Despite the length of the floor session, the House Judiciary Committee still met — more than two hours later than scheduled — for an expedited hearing on a bill allowing up to two years of involuntary commitment of a person in psychiatric facilities if the state deems the person to be a risk. That ensured Angela Harris, who was paralyzed after being stabbed last year in Anchorage by a man found mentally incompetent to stand trial in previous attacks and thus was set free, could testify during the hearing after making the trip to Juneau to see the bill pass the Senate on Monday.
The Republican-led House majority also further solidified its stance on a so-called “50-50” Permanent Fund dividend plan, as the House Ways and Means Committee passed a bill establishing such a dividend formula starting next year — but only if the Legislature also passed a resolution putting a proposed constitutional amendment to voters that requires the state to pay the annual Permanent Fund dividend according to a formula defined by law. The committee’s actions drastically change the bill originally drafted by the Senate majority which contained a “75-25” split of available Fund earnings between state spending and dividends. The difference in splits remains the largest single issue to be resolved by the House and Senate before adjournment.
Meanwhile, Bethany Marcum has been renominated by Dunleavy to the state redistricting board after her nomination to the University of Alaska’s Board of Regents was rejected by a joint session of the Legislature. She resigned from the redistricting board when nominated as a regent and the position has been vacant since. Part of the reason legislators cited for rejecting her — the only nominee for nearly 80 state posts who was not confirmed — is she played a lead role in what a judge last year ruled was an attempted illegal gerrymandering in secret that violated open meetings laws. The redistricting board is scheduled to vote on reaccepting her Monday.
Update 1:30 p.m.
Bills providing state ID cards to prison inmates upon their release and allowing individuals to establish direct agreements with health care providers instead of via insurance passed the state Senate today. The Senate also advanced a bill increasing the Base Student Allocation for public education funding to a final floor vote scheduled Thursday.
What won’t be on the Senate floor by Thursday, or perhaps Friday and beyond, is next year’s state budget — possibly because of efforts to resolve differences with the House now instead of during a conference committee after a floor vote. Senate Finance Committee members have said for the past several days they are holding up the budget bill while awaiting actions from House leaders, on the capital projects budget in particular. But if a compromise version of the entire budget is passed by the committee it could shorten the approval process by several days since the House would simply need to concur with a floor vote by the Senate. However, that depends on resolving issues such as the split on the Permanent Fund dividend for this year, with no public sign of an agreement so far.
The House is engaged today in a hours-long floor debate involving amendments to Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s bill enhancing penalties for certain drug crimes. While a final floor isn’t likely until tomorrow, House members are proposing and discussing a range of issues such as what types of drugs deserve the harshest punishments, unintended consequences of unknowingly distributing seemingly innocent substances, and the merits (or lack thereof) of putting more emphasis on treatment and rehabilitation.
Update 9 a.m.
The Senate Finance Committee is scheduled to again consider its version of next year’s state budget this morning, but with one week until the scheduled adjournment of the session it will almost certainly take some maneuvering within the rules for the full Legislature to approve a spending plan in time. That’s because in theory the budget will take at least two days to pass a floor vote in the Senate once the bill gets there, the House would then be asked to concur with Senate changes (which would almost certainly fail), then a conference committee of House and Senate members would have to draft a compromise bill, and then each chamber might again need two days to pass it if a reconsideration vote is requested (although that happens the same day by default if it’s the last day of the session). But as both House and Senate leaders said last week, there’s a lot of waivers and other ways lawmakers can get a plan through if the desire if there.
But it appears there’s still a big rift on what’s now the biggest issue — calculating the Permanent Fund dividend — as the Senate’s so-called “75-25” bill that would allocate the larger percentage of spendable Fund earnings to state spending was changed to a “50-50” split by the House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday evening. Although the bill doesn’t affect this fall’s dividend, the different splits between the House and Senate represent their firm positions on PFDs in their respective budgets.
• Another major issue is an increase in pubic school funding, with the majorities in both chambers supporting some version of a one-time $680 per-student increase that would cost a total of about $175 million. But the Senate is pushing that further by bringing a bill that would permanently increase the base student allocation by $680 during the coming year and more in future years — and add extra transportation funds and measures to track accountability — to the floor today, although the final vote to pass it may occur tomorrow. House majority leaders have said they are not interested in passing such a bill this session.
• A money proposal with an entirely different luster that makes gold and silver legal tender “in the payment of a debt should the merchant or payee agree to accept it” is scheduled to be heard on the House floor. The House is also scheduled to hear Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s bill that increases penalties for some drug offenses, including making it second-degree murder if a person manufactures or distributes a controlled substance that results in another person’s death. Dunleavy’s bill also eliminates “good time” credit for manufacturing or distributing such drugs.
• One of the bills getting the most public attention the past couple of weeks, which repeals ranked choice voting, is scheduled to get its first hearing by the House Judiciary Committee today at 1 p.m. The hearing is occurring a day after the bill was moved from the State Affairs Committee, suggesting there is strong support in the Republican-led House, but the leaders with the bipartisan Senate majority say they have no interest in the bill.
TUESDAY, MAY 9
Update 5:30 p.m.
Although the joint session to confirm (or not, in one instance) Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s nominees to nearly 80 state positions dominated Tuesday’s activity at the Capitol, there were a couple of notable other developments:
— A bill repealing ranked choice voting was advanced out of one House committee Tuesday and immediately scheduled for another hearing in a second committee on Wednesday. House Bill 4, was voted out of the House State Affairs Committee following about an hour of public testimony Tuesday, the second meeting by the committee that accepted public comment. While the bill is expected to be favorably received by a majority of the House Judiciary Committee, which is scheduled to first hear the proposal at 1 p.m. Wednesday, it appears to have virtually no change of passing the Legislature due to broad opposition in the bipartisan Senate majority. A ballot measure is seeking to put the repeal on the ballot in 2024 and supporters claim they have about half of the necessary signatures that are due by February.
— A group of about 10 adult and youth LGBTQ+ residents met with Gov. Mike Dunleavy as part of their visit to Juneau to advocate for HB 99, which would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The group, during a subsequent press gathering with bill sponsor Rep. Jennifer Armstrong, an Anchorage Democrat, and other legislative supporters said they felt Dunleavy discussed their concerns respectfully. But there were also concerns expressed about his so-called “parental rights” bill that LGBTQ+ advocates say would force schools to “out” students who might not want to confide in their parents, and Armstrong acknowledged her bill is for now being held with no chance of passage by the Republican-led House Judiciary Committee.
Update 12:30 p.m.
Bethany Marcum’s nomination to the University of Alaska’s Board of Regents was rejected by a 29-31 vote during Tuesday’s joint session of the Legislature, making her the only nominee of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s to be rejected. All three of Juneau’s Democratic legislators opposed her nomination, with state Sen. Jesse Kiehl delivering a lengthy and impassioned speech about a previous experience with Marcum in which she allegedly misrepresented her knowledge of the state’s education system. Others spoke against her due to her supporting a budget that made huge cuts to the university’s budget and leading what the state Supreme Court called an illegal gerrymandering effort as a member of the redistricting board.
Update 10:20 a.m.
The joint legislative session to confirm Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s nominees is underway, with the first vote on five department commissioners being a unanimous vote for Juneau resident Jen Winkelman to head the Department of Corrections.
The next three commissioner nominees sailed through with similar ease, but the first objection was voiced by state Rep. Sara Hannan, a Juneau Democrat, to Adam Crum’s nominee as the commissioner of the Department of Revenue. She cited his previous tenure as the commissioner of the Department of Health and Social Services, which is suffering a crisis-level backlog of food stamp applications dating back to last September due to staffing and equipment issues. Hannan said she cannot support a nominee whose leadership left families hungry during the winter.
Most other legislators speaking on his nomination offered support, noting among other things his leadership of the department during the COVID-19 pandemic and current work as the state deals with a lower-than-expected spring revenue forecast.
“He put Alaska ahead of the curve in terms of resources that helped save this great state,” said Sen. David Wilson, a Wasilla Republican, referring to the pandemic. As for the food stamp crisis, Wilson said “those problems were a systemic issue that occurred in a prior administration.”
The vote to confirm Crum was 55-5, with Juneau Democratic Rep. Andi Story and Juneau Democratic state Sen. Jesse Kiehl both voting in favor.
There are 10 pages of nominees, with Bethany Marcum and other University of Alaska Board of Regents nominees on the ninth page. Marcum’s nomination is expected to be the most controversial of the session.
The votes are being tallied for the first time on a split screen voting board, which legislative staff said required extensive reprogramming work during the days before the joint session.
Update 9 a.m.
A joint session of the House and Senate is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. and estimates from participants place the length at somewhere between two hours and most of the work day. Much will depend on how much discussion there is about a relative handful of nominees considered controversial, although the number of people who might fail to be confirmed is apparently a much smaller subset.
The person most frequently named as a possible denial is University of Alaska Board of Regents nominee Bethany Marcum, who as director of the Alaska Policy Forum supported a budget by Gov. Mike Dunleavy that cut the university’s budget by 40%.
Both chambers also have legislation scheduled for floor votes today. The most notable items are in the Senate, including bills providing state identification cards for released prisoners to aid their return to society, allowing residents to establish direct agreements with health providers instead of through insurance and concurring with House changes to a bill extending the duration of Medicaid eligibility for new mothers.
Many committees aren’t meeting today because of the joint session, but a few meetings scheduled this afternoon and evening are for legislation that has received extensive public attention:
— A bill imposing tougher penalties for sex/human trafficking, which opponents have called an unfair criminalization of sex workers and clients, is scheduled to be heard by the House Finance Committee at 1:30 p.m.
— A revised version of the so-called “75-25” bill that allocates 75% of spendable Permanent Fund earnings to state programs and 25% to dividends is scheduled to be heard by the House Ways and Means Committee at 6 p.m.
MONDAY, MAY 8
Update 7:30 p.m.
A long, packed day (which will likely be the norm until adjournment) saw the Senate Finance Committee unanimously advance a bill increasing the base student allocation for public schools to a floor vote. Senate Bill 52, after amendments, contains the same $680 per-student increase for the coming year currently supported as one-time funding totalling $175 million by the Senate and House majorities in their proposed budgets, but makes additional increases that are permanent in future years. It also boosts student transportation funding by $8 million, and contains a number of academic tracking and other performance requirements. The Republican-led House majority has stated it does not intend to move such a bill this session, although an education funding increase and how to pay for it remain significant items subject to negotiations during the session’s final days.
Also debated late Monday was another major negotiating item — indeed, what many legislators call the biggest one — as the so-called “75-25” bill calculating Permanent Fund dividends was heard by a skeptical House Ways and Means Committee. The bill that originated in the Senate Finance Committee allocates 75% of available Fund earnings to state spending and the remaining 25% to PFDs, which would result in a dividend of about $1,300 if the formula is used this fall (the bill does not take effect this year, but the formula is in the current version of the Senate’s budget). Republicans on the Ways and Means Committee expressed reluctance to lower dividends below the House’s current “50-50” plan that would result in about $2,700 PFD, arguing the state already gets most of the total revenue from all sources (including oil and federal funds). The bill does allow a 50-50 dividend if the state generates $1.3 million in additional revenue and builds its main reserve fund to $3.5 billion (up from $2.4 billion now), but lawmakers skeptical of the bill suggested numerous alternatives to a large cut in PFDs still deserve consideration. The Ways and Means Committee is expected to introduce and hear a modified version of the bill Tuesday evening.
Update 1:30 p.m.
A bill banning PFAS chemicals for most firefighting that was sponsored by state Sen. Jesse Kiehl, a Juneau Democrat, unanimously passed the Senate today. Kiehl, who has unsuccessfully tried to pass more comprehensive bills in past years, said Senate Bill 67 is a “no more spills” bill without cleanup of existing contamination, but after the floor session expressed optimism such action will be addressed in new clean water rules the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is pursing this year. The bill now goes to the House.
Kiehl was also an instrumental part of a contentious debate during Monday’s floor session — which included a long at-ease for a closed-door caucus meeting — about a bill expanding an involuntary commitment law to allow up to a two-year involuntary commitment for a specific individuals such as those declared incompetent to stand trial or pose “a danger to themselves or others.” The bill originally allowed a five-year detention period, which Kiehl amended to two years with an amendment during the committee process. But he was among the nay votes when it passed the Senate 14-6 due to a floor amendment that, among other provisions, requires a person detained at a medical or other certain facilities to be transported to a crisis residential center or evaluation facility within 10 days unless a court extends the timeline. Concern by opposing senators, and at least one member voting for the bill, focused on a desire to give further scrutiny to the changes that might have unintended consequences, such as potentially dangerous people being set free on technicalities, and aren’t comfortable hoping the House will address those issues when it considers the bill.
Other bills passing the Senate make the manufacture/sale/installation of counterfeit airbags in vehicles illegal and a potential felony if it results in injuries during an accident, and allow electric-assisted bicycles to be used anywhere regular bikes are allowed.
Update 12:15 p.m.
A bill making home care providers for the elderly people and people with disabilities eligible for Medicaid passed the state House at midday by a 39-1 vote, with a couple of minor changes the Senate will need to concur with before it is transmitted to Gov. Mike Dunleavy. Senate Bill 57, introduced by Dunleavy, classifies people providing in-home elderly and disabled care as adult day care centers for the purposes of Medicaid eligibility, which advocates say will help resolve shortages of professional care centers due to workforce issues and the lack of such facilities in rural areas. Two amendments adopted by the House allow greater sharing of confidential medical information with at-home providers and change the label for at-home providers to “host homes,” a preferred term used by numerous other states with such programs.
Update 8:45 a.m.
With 10 days left until adjournment the timeline for getting a budget passed by the Legislature seems increasingly shaky, but leaders in the House and Senate are both saying the rules allow them to move quickly if most of the lawmakers in the building are willing to do so. The primary remaining difference is the Republican-led House majority pushing for a so-called “50-50” Permanent Fund dividend of about $2,700, while the bipartisan Senate majority is standing firm on a “75-25” PFD of about $1,300 that avoids the $600 million the House spending plan would likely incur.
A possible look at the House majority’s willingness to seek a compromise on the issue is scheduled at 6 p.m. when a Senate bill establishing the “75-25” in state law is heard by the House Ways and Means Committee. It’s important to note the bill does not apply to this year’s PFD since the law would be effective as of next year, since the Senate’s 75-25 PFD for this year is part of its version of the state budget bill.
Meanwhile, a recently declared top priority of the state House, a cap on state spending, is scheduled to be heard by the House Finance Committee at 10 a.m. The bill and an associated constitutional amendment would base the cap on the state’s GNP, with the initial level being roughly equal to current state spending.
Of local note this morning is one of Juneau state Sen. Jesse Kiehl’s priority bills, a ban on PFAS chemicals for most firefighting purposes, is scheduled for a final floor vote in the Senate. Its prospects in the House during the final days of session are unknown, although a companion bill in the House did receive a committee hearing last Friday.
Among the biggest upcoming items this week is a joint session starting at 10 a.m. Tuesday to confirm Dunleavy’s nominees for department commissioners and other posts. A few names are expected to get more discussion and dissent than most, including University of Alaska Board of Regents nominee Bethany Marcum (for supporting a budget with deep cuts to the university) and Department of Revenue Commissioner Adam Crum (for being commissioner of the Department of Health when it incurred a crisis-level backlog of food stamp applications).
FRIDAY, MAY 5
Update 5:35 p.m.
Capitol-connected headlines for today (so far):
Update 3:45 p.m.
Legislation putting a cap on state spending is a top priority for the Republican-led House majority in reaching an agreement on next year’s budget and a long-range fiscal plan, House Speaker Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, said during a news conference Friday afternoon. House Rules Committee Chair Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, said such legislation is “tied together” with the Senate proposal to shrink Permanent Fund dividends to $1,300, compared to the $2,700 the House’s budget plan provides, “but I don’t think it’s a tradeoff because I don’t think the spending cap is something we can trade.” Rather, Johnson said, a cap sends an important message to constituents “that we’re not going to go out and spend your money willy-nilly.” A bill and corresponding proposed constitutional amendment sponsored by Rep. Will Stapp, R-Fairbanks, ”would effectively set (the) limit near current spending levels” by basing the amount available in the average of the preceding five years’ GDP. A hearing on both measures by the House Finance Committee is scheduled Monday. A matching pair of proposals introduced in the Senate has been dormant since a single committee hearing in early April.
Update 12:30 p.m.
— Medicaid for moms bill goes to governor: The Senate voted 19-1 to concur with a House version of a bill extending Medicaid coverage for new moms to one year instead of 60 days. The House had modified the bill the Senate passed earlier this session by raising the eligibility to 225% of the poverty level rather than 200%. The bill now goes to Gov. Mike Dunleavy so he can sign the bill which he introduced on Feb. 6. Sen. Mike Shower, a Wasilla Republican, cast the lone dissenting vote.
— PFAS bill scheduled for Senate vote Monday: A bill by state Sen. Jesse Kiehl, a Juneau Democrat, banning PFAS chemicals for most firefighting is scheduled for a final Senate floor vote on Monday after an amended version was adopted during Friday’s floor session. The changes made by the Senate Resources Committee alter an exemption for oil and gas related businesses, instead applying it to responders to“a fire that originates in relation to oil or gas production, transmission, transportation, or refining.” It also allows the state to accept up to 40 gallons of a firefighting substance that contains PFAS chemicals from small remote communities that use small “load carts” to store firefighting chemicals, instead of the 25 gallons in the original bill.
— “Textbook Cost Transparency Act” passes Senate: Requiring the University of Alaska to provide online information about the cost of materials and automatic fees related to courses starting on July 1, 2026, passed the state Senate by a 19-1 vote Friday. The bill also requires the university’s online course schedule to include search functions that identify courses where only zero-cost or low-cost materials are required. Senate Bill 13 is sponsored by Sen. Robert Myers, a North Pole Republican who is among the three senators not in the 17-member bipartisan majority. The dissenting vote was cast by Sen. Matt Claman, an Anchorage Democrat.
Update 10:30 a.m.
— Not oil’s well: Top officials at HillCorp, ExxonMobile Alaska and ConocoPhillips made their cases against a bill increasing oil industry taxes to the Senate Finance Committee on Friday morning, which occasionally got colorful and confrontational. Sen. Lyman Hoffman, a Bethel Democrat, at various points suggested the oil execs were making hostage demands and he was offended by the suggestion the bill exists simply because legislators want more money to spend.
— Speaker to speak: House Speaker Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, said she is hosting a news conference at 2 p.m. today, which will be shown live on Gavel Alaska. A staff member said she will discuss and answer questions about various end-of-session matters, without any major announcements planned at this time. The House is only scheduled to meet in a technical session today since many members are absent heading into the weekend.
Initial update: 9 a.m.
— Stories we’re pursuing today: Jesse Kiehl’s bill to ban PFAS chemicals for firefighting is on the Senate floor. A rally by the group Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women is scheduled on the steps of the Capitol beginning at 5 p.m.
— Oil prices plunge below break-even line: So much for OPEC’s production cuts bailing Alaska out of a fiscal mess again thanks to a surge in oil prices. Few legislators blinked when the announced cuts a month ago caused oil to spike upward by more than $10 a barrel to near the $90 target OPEC declared it was seeking by limiting supplies. But during the past several days prices have dropped to just above $70, which is below Alaska’s official price forecast of $73 during the fiscal year starting July 1. Lawmakers who weren’t celebrating weeks ago aren’t panicking now, although Senate leaders in particular are emphasizing it shows their version of next year’s budget is the only sensible solution. The most notable aspects are a $1,300 PFD and a $90 million surplus (which would oil prices to average $72 during the year without a deficit), while the House has a $2,700 PFD and deficit of about $600 million. It seems safe to say nobody at the Capitol is now giving serious consideration to Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s originally proposed budget with a PFD of about $3,500 and a deficit of in the range of $1 billion.
— Odds of a special session rising quickly: Dunleavy already indicated last week at a news conference with legislative leaders a special session is likely later this year, possibly this fall, that focuses on a long-range fiscal plan. But since then there’s increasing talk a special session may be needed sooner to deal with an impasse in next year’s budget since the House and Senate remain far apart on the amount of this year’s PFD and how it will be paid for. Senate leaders say they won’t allow the use of reserve funds to cover the deficit caused by the House’s bigger PFD. House leaders say they won’t accept the Senate’s smaller PFD. And the Senate Finance Committee, which was supposed to finalize its proposed version this budget and send it to the floor for a vote next week, hasn’t done so yet and isn’t scheduled to Friday. That makes timeline very tight for the 10 days remaining when the committee next meets on Monday.
— Oil, income and sales taxes, oh my: The Senate Finance Committee, while not doing much visible work on the budget, is suddenly spending a lot of time this week on a bill increasing oil taxes, even though the Republican-led House is unlikely to act on such legislation. Dunleavy’s promise eight days ago to introduce a statewide sales tax — possibly at 1%, which might generate about $370 million of revenue a year, still hasn’t happened as of early Friday morning. And perhaps the oddest tax bill of the session was introduced this week by Rep. Zack Fields, an Anchorage Democrat, imposing an income tax that’s the same amount as the PFD dividend for people whose adjusted gross income is $75,000 or more, with an exemption for those filing as a dependent. Fields on Friday called it a “net-zero for high-income Alaskans” proposal.
— Joint session to confirm governor’s nominees next Tuesday: The joint session is at 10 a.m. to vote on confirming numerous department commissioners and other state officials appointed by Dunleavy. The biggest name making headlines during committee hearings is Bethany Marcum, executive director of the Alaska Policy Forum, nominated to the University of Alaska’s Board of Trustees. Marcum and the conservative think tank that’s part of a national network expressed support of Dunleavy’s budget in 2019 that included a 40% funding cut to the university system, among other controversial actions. APF members also lobbied heavily against a bill increasing per-student public education funding earlier this session.
— Can carbon capture enough votes before adjournment? House Minority Leader Calvin Schrage, an Anchorage independent, raised a few eyebrows during a press briefing Thursday when he said he believes there a good chance Dunleavy’s bills to have Alaska enter the carbon capture market will receive floor votes. He backed off slightly under questioning a few minutes later, but the Anchorage Daily News reported Friday one of Dunleavy’s bills seeking to collect cash by preserving forests and other environmental terrain may have enough traction to pass the Senate this year. Another bill seeking to earn money by storing carbon waste from polluters is getting more favor from House leaders, but Senate Majority Leader Cathy Giessel, an Anchorage Republican, said this week there’s no possibility of giving that bill proper scrutiny before adjournment.
In other news
— Headlines not by us worth reading anyhow: “With public testimony phone lines clogged, Alaska legislators consider different options” (Alaska Beacon)