Special session begins — slowly

Alaska lawmakers convened the fourth special session of the 29th Alaska Legislature today, but though the state is 38 days from a government shutdown, urgency was as absent as the lawmakers.

A quarter of the House and a quarter of the Senate were missing as the special session gaveled in, and action was light amid an expected vote Tuesday that will decide the starting point for nine of the 11 measures on the special session agenda. The other two measures were introduced into the House and Senate on Monday.

“I don’t think we’re that far apart on the operating budget — or we weren’t last week,” said Speaker of the House Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, who added that he thinks a budget could be wrapped up in a week.

Other items on the agenda could take more time.

“I’ve mapped it out broadly, and we can get everything done in two weeks,” said Rep. Sam Kito, D-Juneau and the House Minority Whip. “Will we get everything done in two weeks? That’s a different question, but it’s possible for everything to happen in the next two weeks.”

When lawmakers ended the regular session just before midnight Thursday morning, they were partly through the legislative process on many of the bills now being considered in special session.

Normally, if a bill isn’t done by the end of the regular session, it dies. Any new bill must start from scratch. On Tuesday, the House and Senate are expected to vote on a special resolution that would allow them to override that standard policy and resume where they left off on nine pieces of legislation, including the budget.

“If we have to start from ground zero with the budget, that means getting into subcommittees with each of the departmental budgets,” explained Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau.

It would mean weeks of work, and the Legislature might not have time for much else, unless it can pick up from where it left off.

A two-thirds vote of each house will be needed to do that. While the vote in the Senate is assured, the vote in the House will require the support of the Democratic-led minority.

House Minority Leader Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, said the minority supports the notion of resuming work on everything except House Bill 247, the bill to cut the state subsidy of oil and gas drilling.

The House passed one version of that bill, the Senate another, and when the regular session ended, HB 247 was about to go to a conference committee to work out a compromise.

Now, the minority wants Gov. Bill Walker to submit legislation of his own, overwriting the bills passed by the House and Senate.

“We want to see what the governor has proposed by introducing a new bill from the governor and the modeling that goes along with that,” Tuck said.

The reason for that? The governor has consistently supported steeper cuts than most Republicans in the Legislature. If the governor proposes a new bill, it’s likely to include more cuts than the measures passed by the House or Senate.

While the House and Senate would have to examine and presumably rewrite the new bill, it could set the bounds of a compromise that would land in a position more amenable to Democrats.

The problem with that approach is one of timing. HB 247 has been seen by some in the Legislature — particularly House Democrats — as a prerequisite to passing a budget, but a new bill would have to navigate the Legislature’s committee process. HB 247, which has already gone through that process, needed five months of work and more than two dozen hearings.

“I think that’s going to take up more time than what’s necessary,” said Senate President Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, of the idea of a new bill. “I think people are where they’re at on oil and gas tax credit reform, so I don’t know that introducing a new bill is going to get anything different.”

Tuck, for his part, said cutting subsidies is a must-have.

“I don’t think Alaskans are going to be happy with us if we’re making cuts to public education … but yet paying out these huge tax credits to the richest industry in the world,” he said.

Asked what the next weeks will bring, Chenault responded, “I have no clue.”

If there is no budget by June 1, state employees will receive notices warning that they will be laid off.

If there is no budget by July 1, those layoffs will take place. Alaska’s government will shut down.

“We need to get the budget through. We need to get the minority’s support so that come June 1, we’re not sending out pink slips. That is incredibly important,” Muñoz said.

• Contact Empire reporter James Brooks at james.k.brooks@juneauempire.com.

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