(Note: This article has been updated to correct the name of a page in the top photo. His name is Zaxon Tomaszewski, not Bernard Damerval.)
Legislative business isn’t always as simple as 1-2-3. And since the words that first come to mind with the “ABCs” of legislative lingo can change every year, here’s an A to Z list of the word and phrases most likely to be heard often during this year’s session at the Alaska State Capitol.
A — At ease: A sometimes brief, sometimes lengthy intermission during floor sessions and committee meetings. Sometimes it’s to make sure everyone’s clear on the rules. Sometimes it’s to smooth out unexpected wrinkles in whatever deal was reached in a closed caucus to get the votes needed to approve something. Sometimes it’s to figure out “what next” when the votes don’t exist. All this happens with microphones muted and members often wandering in, out and about the room.
B — BSA: One of the most-used acronyms of this year’s session is what’s officially known as the base student allocation. The current BSA provides $5,960 for every public school student, which is essentially unchanged since 2017 (a $30 increase was attached to a bill separate from the budget last year), thus meaning schools effectively have a lot less money due to inflation. It appears a more significant increase may be realistic this year since most politicians at the Capitol are saying as much, but during the early weeks of the session it appears the bipartisan Senate majority favors a $1,000 increase, while the Republican-led house and Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy favor something smaller. A key debating topic is the acknowledgement by virtually all that increasing educating funding will mean reducing the size of the Permanent Fund dividend.
C — Carbon: This year’s newest big buzzword as the governor is hoping to launch a plan he says can earn the state billions of dollars simply by doing things like not cutting trees and burying carbon emissions from polluters deep underground. The plan involves what are known as “carbon credits” or “carbon offsets,” which at the simplest level involves a company that pollutes buying carbon credits so it can claim a lower “net” impact. Alaska would acquire those credits to give to polluters by taking environmental preservation measures. The collective reaction from legislators has essentially been “interesting, but we need to learn more” before acting on any bills implementing the governor’s plan.
D — Dysfunctional: At times the default mode at the Capitol, especially at the beginning of sessions when lawmakers can’t organize and at the end when they can’t get things done by the legal deadline. While this year’s organization was relatively swift, the inability to organize has become an irregular part of the House the past three sessions, due to moderate Republicans forming majorities with Democrats rather than members of their own parties considered troublesome. Two years ago the stalemate lasted weeks, this year just a couple of days. The Legislature also has 120 days to complete its business, and invariably a stack of “vital” bills including the budget get stacked up for last-days consideration. When they fail to get the budget done on time, or other things happen to cause a political maelstrom, lawmakers end up getting called into one or more special sessions for which (as the media invariably notes) they get paid extra per diem and other expenses.
E — Election reform: Repealing ranked choice ballots, which were narrowly approved by voters in 2020, is the most common proposal by legislators (along with two citizens groups working on petitions to put a repeal on the ballot this fall), but there also proposals mirrored from other states that would reduce the voting timeline, require IDs and enforce other rules.
F — Fiscal notes: When it comes to understanding a bill, the text itself may border on inscrutable, but the fiscal notes make the financial impact of proposed lesilation clear. For instance, the governor introduced two bills each in the House and Senate for his carbon plan (see “C”), which he hopes will earn about $900 million annually within a few years. The first bill which essentially seeks to preserve the environment in exchange for cash contains three fiscal notes, estimating there will be about $2 million in startup costs during the next fiscal year, but there is no income listed for any future year “because of the market and timeline uncertainty for carbon offset projects.” The notes state an unknown amount of revenue would likely start coming in sometime between 2025 and 2027.
G — Gavel Alaska: The ultimate must-see TV (and viral online viewing, for generations coming of age after the broadcasts debuted in 1995) for everyone immersed in Capitol affairs of the legislative kind. KTOO provides live TV and online broadcasts at www.ktoo.org/gavel of the most important business of the moment during legislative sessions — as well as meetings during the interim. Other meetings and rebroadcasts are shown when things are gaveled out during the day at the Capitol, and virtually all meetings taking place are available on-demand online. Originally known as Gavel To Gavel, and provided by crews wheeling large camera setups from room to room, coverage is now much easier and more widespread due to remote-operated cameras installed throughout the Capitol.
H — Heard and held: A two-fold combination of common committee actions on bills which — as the wording suggests — means legislation was officially considered (often including) testimony and amendments, but failed to advance beyond the committee to the next legislative step. One of the most common phrases that appears when looking up the action history of a bill.
I — Initiative: Frequently a declaration of war by constituents against lawmakers and/of the system, in which a group of residents attempt to enact laws and constitutional amendments by getting enough registered voters to sign a petition to put the matter on an election ballot. Lawmakers can overturn those results two years later through legislation, such as proposals this year to eliminate ranked choice voting after voters approved it in 2020. But initiatives do also often make allies out of politicians and proletariat, including the ranked choice repeal since a petition to do that is circulating while chatter at the Capitol continues.
J — Judiciary: There’s the “third branch” of government, and there’s the legislative committees that have jurisdiction over the programs and activities of the Alaska Court System and the Department of Law. The “third branch” at times incurs the wrath of the executive and/or legislative branches by declaring measures approved at the Capitol are unconstitutional, prompting attempts to limit the judiciary’s powers. The committees end up hearing a wide range of bills, resolutions and proposed constitutional amendments about everything/anything legal from criminal acts to end-of-life rights to whether the state should endorse in electing U.S. presidents by popular vote.
K — Keys: The truest cold, hard indicator of one’s place in the power structure at the Capitol. Outsiders are literally shut out beyond the regular business hours of 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. Entry-level folks such as the media can literally get past the main outer door (but not the special legislator/staff entrances) and into their offices. Legislators and staff can access the full kitchen in the second-floor public lounge, while lawmakers only can access the second-floor dining area and shower on the ground floor. The executive branch folks, it should go without saying, are able to get beyond the sealed double doors on the third floor.
L — Legislative immunity: A literal get-out-of-jail-free card for state lawmakers defined in these words from Alaska’s Constitution: “Legislators may not be held to answer before any other tribunal for any statement made in the exercise of their legislative duties while the legislature is in session. Members attending, going to, or returning from legislative sessions are not subject to civil process and are privileged from arrest except for felony or breach of the peace.”
M — Majority/Minority: Groups that in most U.S. legislative bodies define whether Republicans or Democrats are in charge because they have the most members. Alaska’s Legislature, however, features a lot of party crossover. Voters elected 11 Republicans to the state Senate last November, for instance, but the majority consists of nine Democrats and eight Republicans because the latter decided its was better for getting things done than a coalition with the other three members of its party. Similarly, the House has formed bipartisan coalitions during the past three sessions, although the one this year is essentially a Republican-led majority that includes four Democrats and independents from rural Alaska who form what’s known as the Bush Caucus. The House majority left two of its party members out, one of whom joined the Democrats in the minority and the other who is a political lone ranger.
N – Notice of reconsideration: One of the cards in the political deck a single legislator can play to delay/alter/nullify the outcome of a vote. It allows a second vote on a measure the next legislative day (or the same day by two-thirds vote of the full membership), which cancels the previous vote. Can be a thorny issue at the end of the session when majorities in both chambers are trying to rush bills through, but may not be able to if they wait until literally the day or two, and thus fall prey to reconsideration notices in one or both chambers.
O — Oil: Long the lifeblood of Alaska’s financial health, its health is increasingly unstable as it ages since there’s a finite amount that can be extracted. While the ongoing debate about production has raged statewide and nationally for decades, each year the more immediately pressing questions of prices and revenue the state will get reign supreme. This session the starting oil prices in the range of $75-$80 a barrel aren’t are disastrously low or indulgently high, but state officials say there’s unprecedented uncertainty due to global events such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which caused an enormous price increase last spring that has since gradually declined.
P – PFD: While the pols toss out terms like “full,” “statutory,” “50/50” and “sustainable” Permanent Fund dividends, Alaskans generally just want to know how much money from the state’s oil/investments earnings they’re getting each fall. This year’s debate is pretty simple if one ignores the buzzwords: Gov. Mike Dunleavy and like-minded legislators want dividends about $3,800 per eligible resident, which would mean draining some of the state’s reserve savings and not increasing funding for things like state education or the Alaska Marine Highway System. A fairly large group of other lawmakers want smaller dividends so there’s money to pay for increases in such programs with draining even more from the state’s reserves.
Q — Quorum: The minimum number of members that must be present for a committee meeting or floor session to be legally valid.
R — Reserves: Emergency funds that will be depleted within a few years without action, or so lawmakers have been saying for decades. Yet over the years they’ve found ways to sweep chunks of money into it and used various bookkeeping measures to juggle funds around. The primary reserve account is the Constitutional Budget Reserve which has roughly $2 billion, while the projected budget deficit for next year is between $250 million and $500 million — this suggesting as of now it’s several years away from being fully depleted. That account is also often the ultimate budget blessing to legislators in the minority since a three-fourths vote of the Legislature is needed to tap it, meaning the majority almost always has to make concessions to get enough votes. Finally, it should be noted outsiders in particular tend to ridicule the notion of a fiscal crisis in Alaska given the ultimate reserve account known as the roughly $80 billion Permanent Fund.
S — Suspend the rules: Quite literally “a parliamentary procedure to set aside rules so that an action may occur that could otherwise violate those rules.”
T — Twenty-four hour rule: Setting aside the “anything goes” provision just above, this is an intriguing clause for “read the bill before passing it” advocates. It essentially states the House and Senate vote on final budget bills (aka the legislation that results after members from both chambers work out their differences in a conference committee) until at least 24 hours after they’ve been delivered to the chamber.
U — Uniform rules: There’s at least two definitions including the boring bureaucratic version of “rules adopted by during a joint session of both legislative bodies, setting out uniform procedures for enacting bills into law and adopting resolutions” as required by the state Constitution. And then there’s the definition referring to actual uniforms while conducting certain official business, which this year has a new provision requiring ID badges for staff and lobbyists (similar to what the press already has to wear).
V —Veto: Under the state constitution, the governor has the ability to quash bills passed by the Legislature — and to strike or reduce amounts included in an appropriations bill — but it can be overridden by two-thirds of members of the Legislature voting to do so. The Alaska the governor has more veto power than the U.S. president or many other governors due to the power of the line-item veto, allowing him to strike provisions in the budget bills he opposes when he signs them, usually at the end of June. Legislators can override those vetoes, generally via a special session instead of waiting until the following January to convene.
W – Without objection: A phrase the presiding officer of a committee or floor session uses with great frequency to dispose matters without taking a roll call vote of the members when it is assumed the action has unanimous approval.
X — Xylophone: A reasonably polite way for youths serving as Senate pages to tell the power brokers “let’s get this show on the road.” The jingle, known as “Off To The Races,” is played on glockenspiels (which have metal bars while a xylophone has wooden ones, but good luck to nitpickers coming up with a better legislative “X” word) by two pages wandering the halls starting 15 minutes before floor sessions.. The House, meanwhile, relies on an electronic bell notification that plays the famous clock chime “Westminster Quarters” through the speakers installed throughout the building.
Y — Year: There’s two of these 12-month periods in legislative lingo and it’s rather essential to know which is which. The calendar year from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31 is the one most people are familiar with. But given that the budget is universally acknowledged as the single most essential item of business each legislative session, “this year” and “next year” almost always refers to fiscal years, which span from July 1 to June 30 of the following calendar year.
Z — Zero: A popular absolute preference for political platitudes such as “zero carbon,” “zero tolerance,” “zero sum” and such that in many instances end up being less than absolute. The carbon reference, for example, in theory means an oil (or other) company can claim it has “net zero” emissions because it buys “offset” credits from some entity taking extra steps to protect the environment (such as Alaska leaving forests uncut, if that proposed policy becomes reality). But of course the pollution emitted by the company still exists and numerous research studies question how effective those offsets actually are.
• Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at email@example.com