Lawmakers are confident a budget will be passed before the end of the Legislative session, but a special session seems likely, according to Speaker Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak.
Members of the Alaska House of Representatives will be back on the floor Monday morning to debate two budget bills sent back to committee last week, Stutes said.
“We’re going to start early Monday. My anticipation is to finish her on Monday,” Stutes said Friday in a meeting with reporters. “It should be all of the amendments.”
House members had day-long sessions last Saturday and Sunday debating two budget bills, but procedural disagreements led to those bills being sent back to committee. Stutes told reporters members would hear all amendments that have been submitted. The House is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Monday.
The House passed 14 bills this week, but none of them were the crucial budget bills lawmakers are hoping to finish before May 19. If lawmakers are unable to pass a budget before the 121st day of the session, a special session will have to be called either by the governor or lawmakers.
Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, proposed calling a special session later in the year, and Stutes said there have been conversations with Gov. Mike Dunleavy about a special session specifically focused on a Permanent Fund Dividend.
Alaska has more than $1 billion in federal relief money from the American Rescue Plan Act, but guidance on how that money can be used won’t be released until May 11. A special session would allow lawmakers the time to plan how to best allocate the money, Stedman said in an opinion piece published on the Must Read Alaska blog, a position Stutes said there may be support for.
“Once we get the guidelines it could take up to 90 days to get those monies distributed,” Stutes said. “There’s still a lot of unknowns on that.”
Federal relief money is allowing the state to pass a largely flat budget, Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, previously told the Empire, and budgets being crafted in both the House and Senate are similar to Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed budget.
Critical issues like the amount of the Permanent Fund Dividend remain unsettled, and members of the Republican House Minority have complained about being shut out of the process. A bill to allocate a PFD of $500 was supposed to be heard in the House Finance Committee this week, but those hearings were canceled.
Legislative Finance Director Alexei Painter has told lawmakers that with no PFD or one of $500, the state would have no budget deficit.
The Majority Coalition only has 21 members, just enough to pass bills by a simple majority but Rep. Grier Hopkins, D-Fairbanks, has been absent all week. There was an agreement within the caucus to vote affirmatively on the budget, Stutes said, but members were free to vote how they choose on amendments.
But even with a razor-thin majority, Stutes said she remains confident the Legislature would finish by the 19th.
“That’s what we’re aiming for, and I’m an optimist,” she said.
• Contact reporter Peter Segall at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.