A “hostage” situation erupted Wednesday on the floor of the state House as nearly the entire Democratic-led minority fled the Capitol over a battle in education funding and brought proceedings to a halt, resulting in a search for missing members by security officers and discussions about sending law enforcement to Juneau’s airport to prevent lawmakers from boarding flights.
The standoff lasting several hours involved the House majority revoking its support for an 11% increase to education funding next year and the House minority’s willingness to provide the votes necessary to tap reserve funds in order to balance the budget.
Minority members returned at about 3 p.m. to resume debate after House Speaker Cathy Tilton, a Wasilla Republican, ruled their effort to stall a vote by their absence was out of order – but angry exchanges and procedural motions in what effectively amounted to a filibuster continued until about 6 p.m. when lawmakers adjourned until Thursday morning because they remained far from settling their differences.
“We were getting a place a place where people’s emotions were running pretty darned high and I felt like it was probably a good opportunity to take time to adjourn,” Tilton said afterward.
House leaders have stated they are trying to pass its proposed budget for next year by Thursday so members can have an extended Easter holiday weekend. Nearly 100 proposed amendments were heard during extended floor sessions Monday and Tuesday, and dozens more were introduced by the minority late Wednesday as fracas threatened to disrupt the leaders’ timeline.
Tilton, after the floor session, said the hope is still for the House to pass a budget this week, but it won’t be seriously disruptive to the overall process if the debate continues into next week.
The minority is stating it won’t provide votes to access the reserve fund unless the extra education funding gets priority over the Permanent Fund dividend if a spending reduction is needed, which could mean trimming an estimated $2,700 PFD to about $1,300. The majority responded with Rep. DeLena Johnson, a Palmer Republican who-chairs the Finance Committee, proposing an amendment to rescind a vote earlier this week approving the extra education funding.
That resulted in an at-ease, during which many minority members were seen quickly leaving the building and driving away in vehicles. When the session resumed House Minority Leader Calvin Schrage, the only remaining member of the caucus present, began one of the most intense war of words so far this session.
“It’s a sad day today,” the Anchorage independent said. “I just heard that this is a negotiation process and what we have here is an amendment that puts our children and their education as hostages in that negotiation.”
That resulted in an angry objection by Rep. Bryce Edgmon, a Dillingham independent who has sided with the minority on some key budget item votes, who declared “I do not want to be called a hostage taker.”
“If you go into a negotiation and you put a child on the side of the room and hold him hostage, that’s what it is and I’m going to call it as such,” Schrage retorted.
He then put a call on the House to prevent any votes on the amendment until the absent members were present. During the next few hours there were brief floor exchanges related to the dispute, and longer intermissions where majority members discussed possible parliamentary procedures to end the stalemate and speculated on where their missing colleagues were.
Security officers checked the offices of the missing legislators, although doors to some were locked, and surveyed the parking lot. Tilton, at one point during the floor session, noted sending law enforcement officials to the airport to check for missing members was an option within her authority.
Officials at Juneau’s airport said they were not aware of any legislators attempting to board flights or Alaska State Troopers searching the airport for them.
One additional minority member, Rep. Dan Ortiz, a Ketchikan independent, did return to the floor session soon after the call was placed. He originated the process that resulted in the standoff on Tuesday night by proposing the extra education funding be split between the Permanent Fund Earnings Reserve (which a majority vote can access for state funding and PFDs) and the Constitutional Budget Reserve (which requires a three-fourths vote of the Legislature).
The purpose, Ortiz said, was to avoid a fight over the education increase at the end of the session by providing a funding source not tied to the CBR vote. He said it would also show a commitment by the House to developing a stable long-range spending plan by approving a budget that would concede smaller PFDs might be necessary to prevent a huge deficit while still funding the state’s needs.
“Here and now it’s our job to send over a balanced budget” to the Senate, ” he said. “Not a budget that’s $600 million in deficit.”
That amendment was rejected at the start of Wednesday’s session by a 16-24 vote, after which Schrage escalated tensions by stating the minority was no longer willing to provide votes to access the CBR due to the estimated $600 billion deficit in the House’s budget, which he called an irresponsibly large draw on reserves.
The $175 million in extra education funding was offered by the House majority instead of an ongoing increase in the Base Student Allocation sought by the House minority and Senate majority. The one-time allocation was approved by 39-1 vote Monday before what some, including Rep. Jennie Armstrong, an Anchorage Democrat, called “a bait-and-switch” move Wednesday.
A vote on the motion to rescind the funding passed by a 23-17 vote along caucus lines, with Rep. David Eastman as the lone unaffiliated member joining those opposed.
A multitude of additional motions by the minority followed, which majority members in turn either voted to table or reject. Numerous interjections such as “point of order,” “object” and references to specific provisions of Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure were voiced as the session stretched into the evening. An effort by the minority to adjourn the session for the day around 5 p.m. was unsuccessful — as was a motion by Schrage just before 6 p.m. to suspend the rules for the evening since he alleged they weren’t being followed properly.
The successful motion to adjourn occurred several minutes later.
Because a call on the House was in effect during most of the day’s session it meant members needed a escort from the floor staff to leave to use the restroom and were prohibited from leaving the chamber for other reasons. Mostly jocular references to things such as food and smoking breaks grew more frequent as the day and evening wore on.
While the day’s events were more lively than usual for a budget floor debate, members of both caucuses noted it’s ultimately still just one step in a process where the Senate still needs to approve its proposed budget before conference committee of members from both chambers assembles a compromise budget for final legislative passage.
“I’m very confident that when the dust settles on this we will all agree we need to increase the BSA,” Edgmon said.
But Rep. Sara Hannan, a Juneau Democrat, said there’s no assurances a budget is final until the governor signs it — and the back-and-forth support on the education increase this week by the House majority isn’t reassuring.
“This activity of today reminds us that the process of democracy is ugly and no deal is ever done,” she said. “There’s more than one way to get to an end and it can be undone if you have the votes.”
• Juneau Empire reporter Clarise Larson contributed to this story. Contact Mark Sabbatini at firstname.lastname@example.org.