House Minority Leader Calvin Schrage (center), an Anchorage independent, talks with Reps. CJ McCormick, a Bethel Democrat, Neal Foster, a Nome Democrat, and Bryce Edgmon, a Dillingham independent, as a clock shows the midnight Thursday deadline for the 33rd Alaska Legislature to adjourn passed more than an hour earlier. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

House Minority Leader Calvin Schrage (center), an Anchorage independent, talks with Reps. CJ McCormick, a Bethel Democrat, Neal Foster, a Nome Democrat, and Bryce Edgmon, a Dillingham independent, as a clock shows the midnight Thursday deadline for the 33rd Alaska Legislature to adjourn passed more than an hour earlier. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

33rd Alaska Legislature adjourns well past deadline, due to last-minute rush and disputes by House

Bills on correspondence schools, energy, crime pass on final day; election, other bills cause holdup

This is a developing story.

The 33rd Alaska Legislature adjourned 82 minutes past its constitutional deadline of midnight Thursday due to the House rushing several bills through final passage during the early morning hours, then stalling in a divisive battle over an elections bill.

Meanwhile leaders in the Senate, which adjourned shortly before midnight, called it one of the most productive sessions in years due to a relatively smooth budget process, and the passage of major legislation on energy, crime and ensuring correspondence schools are funded during the coming year in the wake of a court ruling invalidating a law authorizing such funds.

“It was very productive and very stress-free,” said Sen. Bert Stedman, a Sitka Republican who co-chairs the Senate Finance Committee, during a media gaggle following the Senate’s adjournment. “Frankly, it was one of the smoothest sessions I’ve been in in 20 years. Hardly a ripple through the whole thing for three months as we worked toward a budget. Normally we’d do like one big policy issue a year and this year we had several, and I’m kind of surprised we got them all across.”

Among the most notable actions by legislators this session were a one-time $680 increase in the $5,960 per-student public school funding formula, a $12 billion budget with an estimated Permanent Fund dividend of $1,655 and $80 million surplus, an omnibus crime bill imposing tougher penalties for drug and sexual abuse offenses, and energy bills adjusting fee rules and seeking to improve delivery of natural gas and electricity to Southcentral Alaska to ease projected shortages.

Lawmakers also took up dozens of other bills during the final day including extending a benefits program for low-income seniors, allowing employers to compensate employees with payroll cards (similar to prepaid debit cards), allowing people under 21 to serve alcohol while working under supervision in establishments, making Juneteenth a state holiday and expanding child care subsidies.

Failing to pass during the two-year session was an effort to revive pensions for public employees, which were eliminated in 2006 in favor of a 401(k)-style system, with the bipartisan Senate majority at one point declaring it one of its top priorities. However, the Republican-led House showed little interest in a bill passed by the Senate and a last-minute attempt to revive the proposal in a different Senate bill was abandoned.

Also coming up short was an elections bill that had provisions from various related legislation added after it was introduced, causing its sponsor — Rep. Sarah Vance, a Homer Republican — to oppose the bill and express her objections at length well after the midnight deadline when it was brought up for final legislative passage.

A motion for the House to adjourn at about 12:15 p.m. failed by a 19-21 vote. At 1 p.m. House members stalled on another vote 19-20, with one member refusing to vote due to the vote occurring after the deadline and multiple other legislators denouncing the “lawless” continuation of the session.

“What we have done right now in the last 30 minutes is among the most disrespectful and terrible things I have ever seen done to the constitution and to the state of Alaska residents,” said Rep. Kevin McCabe, a Big Lake Republican.

After several more start-and-stop attempts, the House finally voted 21-19 to adjourn at 1:22 p.m. Three rural district members in the majority caucus joined the 16-member minority in opposing adjournment, reflecting a trend of a near-even split on many matters during the past two years with the minority prevailing in some instances with help from crossover majority members.

Leaders of the House majority and minority caucuses had notably different takes on how this year’s session went.

House Minority Leader Calvin Schrage, an Anchorage independent, said the Legislature again failed to seek a stable long-range fiscal plan, and the inability to pass legislation such as the elections and pension bills was disappointing.

“I feel like we had some wins there, but there’s a lot of work left to do and I’m hopeful that in the next Legislature we’ll have a better majority that’s more willing to take action on those issues that Alaskans want to see us take action on,” he said.

A more optimistic assessment was offered by House Speaker Cathy Tilton, a Wasilla Republican, who cited the crime bill, ensuring correspondence school funding and the energy legislation as major accomplishments.

“I think the crime bill is going to be a great success because that is for people who are the victims of crime,” she said. “And so it’s really important that we focus on them. Most of the time when we do crime bills those are about the criminals, but this one is really about the victims and helping them, and I think that’s really, really important.”

Some major House majority goals fell short including a budget that contained an estimated PFD of about $2,270 (with the Senate prevailing in directing funds to capital improvement projects and the state’s savings account), and reducing state royalties on oil and natural gas to incentivize production in Cook Inlet.

“We’re going to continue to work on that,” Tilton said, adding “part of the problem was timing on that and looking at some modeling. So we’ll continue to work on that through the interim.”

Similar sentiments were expressed by Senate leaders about public employee pensions, with the bill stalling in part this year due to questions about the extra costs to the state for such pensions versus the savings and benefits of a potentially more stable workforce.

“There’s a lot of different ways to look at a pension and adjustments that can be made,” said Senate Majority Leader Cathy Giessel, an Anchorage Republican who sponsored Senate Bill 88, which was the primary vehicle for reviving public employee pensions. “So we’re going to continue to pursue it.”

While House and Senate leaders said they are not worried about any legislation the House passed after midnight being invalidated — noting other sessions have gone hours past the 121-day deadline without consequences — numerous legislators in both chambers said any actions taken after midnight are subject to legal challenges.

The final days of the House floor sessions got bogged down by a filibuster of a transgender sports ban bill, with mostly minority caucus members spending part of Thursday night, more than 12 hours on Saturday and a few more hours on Sunday objecting to the bill. It passed by a 22-18 vote, which proved meaningless except for politicking purposes since Senate leaders said it would not receive a hearing.

Tilton was asked if the House might not have been in such a rush — and gone past its legal deadline — if the majority had opted not to bring the transgender bill to the flooring despite knowing the minority would stall it.

“I think we can always manage our time better,” she said. “It is really tough here in the Legislature to manage your time. The bill was important to Alaskans — and maybe not so important to other Alaskans. So I think that we manage our time the best that we can.”

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com or (907) 957-2306.

Legislators and staff leave the Senate Chambers after the Senate adjourns late Wednesday night, just minutes before its midnight Thursday constitutional deadline. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Legislators and staff leave the Senate Chambers after the Senate adjourns late Wednesday night, just minutes before its midnight Thursday constitutional deadline. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

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