Members of the Alaska House of Representatives consult staff during an at ease during floor debate on Aug. 31, 2021, in the middle of the Alaska State Legislature's third special session of the year. Gov. Mike Dunleavy said another session is likely, but didn't say when or where it would be held. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

Governor, lawmakers say another special session likely

Even amongst division, lawmakers say there’s progress

With a little over a week left in the Alaska State Legislature’s third special session of the year, Gov. Mike Dunleavy and some lawmakers have said yet another session may be necessary to resolve all the issues facing the state.

Speaking on the Michael Dukes radio show on Wednesday, Dunleavy didn’t give a date but said it seems like there would have to be another session.

“We’re getting ready for the inevitability this session is going to produce very little, and we’re going to be going right back to it,” Dunleavy said. “We will stay working on this as long as it takes, and we are seriously contemplating the venue. It certainly makes sense to try a different venue because we’ve had it in Juneau now for the past several months and it’s not working.”

In 2019, Dunleavy called for a special session in Wasilla which led to a divided Legislature meeting in two different cities.

Lawmakers were heading into a long weekend Friday and had only just begun to hear proposals aimed at resolving the state’s fiscal deficit. Minority members in the House of Representatives have said addressing solutions for the state’s deficit is a priority for them and have complained at the lack of attention those issues have been given in the current session which ends Sept. 15.

Dunleavy spokesperson Jeff Turner said in an email there are not yet any concrete plans for an additional session and the governor wants to see how the current session plays out.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, told the Empire in a phone interview Friday he agreed there would likely be another session, and his preference is to have it be a continuation of the current session.

“We know we can do it in 60 days because we’ve done it before,” Begich said.

[Gov amends session to allow lawmakers to tackle COVID]

Work was proceeding in the Senate Finance Committee on the budget bill while bills addressing the fiscal issues were being heard in both House and Senate committees. But despite the fractious nature of this Legislature, Begich said proposals and discussions were being talked about in ways he hadn’t seen before during his tenure as a lawmaker.

“What this session has been very good at is helping us come to terms with what we agree on, we know we have certain common areas of agreement,” Begich said.

Recommendations, resolutions and revenues

A fiscal policy working group released a report last month but it provides few actual policy recommendations. It does outline a number of areas where lawmakers from across the political spectrum are in agreement and identifies key issues that must be addressed. Begich said lawmakers, even within his own caucus, have disagreements about how best to solve the issues but having that common ground was helping to build consensus.

Several bills aimed at increasing revenue were introduced in both bodies including one co-sponsored by Begich to raise the motor-fuel tax. There wasn’t enough time left remaining in the current session to get all the necessary work done, Begich said, but if lawmakers worked earnestly together they could lay a good foundation for another session.

Dunleavy originally called a special session for Aug. 2, for the Legislature to work on fiscal resolutions, but deep divisions have prevented lawmakers from finalizing the state’s budget. The governor has since amended the call of the special session twice, first to add the appropriations bill following a request from House Speaker Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, and again on Thursday to allow lawmakers to address the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

On Friday, the House majority called on the governor to declare a 30-day disaster declaration that would immediately ratify legislation Dunleavy submitted to the Legislature when he amended the call. However, later that day Dunleavy sent a leader to Stutes and Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, saying a disaster declaration was an inappropriate response to the current crisis.

The House passed an appropriations bill late last month but after facing significant pushback from minority members who all voted against the bill. However, some of the funding used for the budget must come from the Statutory Budget Reserve and the Constitutional Budget Reserve, both of which require a three-quarter vote of the Legislature.

If the Legislature passes a budget without those votes it will leave large holes in the state’s budget, according to Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, who said he was optimistic it wouldn’t come to that.

“It’s one thing to say I will stand on this vote and don’t mind the consequences,” Khiel said, “it’s another when a constituent calls.”

Different sources, perspectives

Critically, this year’s Permanent Fund Dividend has been cobbled together from various fund sources, including the SBR. The bill passed by the House sets the dividend at $1,100, but without funds from the SBR, the dividend would only be about $600. After a recent court ruling, some lawmakers believe the SBR no longer requires that vote, a position the governor’s administration disagrees with.

That could lead to a lawsuit, Kiehl said, which would waste time and money.

It wasn’t clear if lawmakers would be able to pass the appropriations bill before the end of the current session but said the groundwork was being laid for future sessions. The working group’s report said there were several issues that needed to be addressed in tandem, but Kiehl said he believed lawmakers could get “part of the package.”

Lawmakers on both sides had moderated their positions, Kiehl said, which is critical if lawmakers want to reach a compromise and allocate a PFD of more than $600 this year.

“A number of people who dislike taxes as much as I like service cuts are willing to talk revenues, they see the math,” Kiehl said.

Still, there are some members who are advocating for a larger PFD, and have suggested they will not vote to release funds from the CBR without one.

Bills for constitutional amendments for the PFD and appropriations limits are scheduled to be heard next week, as are bills to address the COVID-19 situation.

If the governor called a special session immediately following the current one lawmakers may be able to get dividends out by the end of October or early November, Begich said, but that depended on lawmakers working seriously.

“If it really means to be a fiscal plan it has to include revenue, if not, then they’re not serious,” Begich said. “If people aren’t truly serious then this is the same odd theater were doing, and Alaska will once again struggle.”

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.

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