Das Kapitol

With deadline looming, lawmakers skeptical of work group schedule

Members question how much work can really be done before Aug. 2

Members of a working group tasked with drafting proposals to resolve the state’s long-term fiscal challenges expressed skepticism about what the group would be able to produce before the proposed start of the next special session on Aug. 2, but said they still felt the work is worthwhile.

“I don’t think it’s a waste of time or I wouldn’t be here,” said. Rep. Kevin McCabe, R-Big Lake, in a phone interview with the Empire Tuesday, but said he wanted to see the group meet more often.

At the group’s first meeting several lawmakers said they believed the working group would need more than the few weeks between the end of the last special session on June 21 and the next special session time to draft proposals. Lawmakers said at that meeting they had discussed moving the date of the next special session with Gov. Mike Dunleavy, but the governor’s administration has said it intends on beginning the next session Aug. 2.

At the last meeting, McCabe voiced the frustration on behalf of the Republican minority caucus in the Alaska House of Representatives that the group was not meeting often enough. Group members pledged to increase meeting frequency and is currently scheduled to meet again on Thursday. McCabe told the Empire Tuesday it was important to him and his caucus there be opportunities for public testimony from various regions of the state.

McCabe reiterated those complaints at Tuesday’s meeting, the group’s third meeting since forming, taking the time to read the Sense of the House resolution that created the group from an agreement at the end of the last special session. The document calls for a robust discussion with the group producing policy recommendations but McCabe said he didn’t see how the group would be able to accomplish its work on the current schedule.

Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski, voiced similar complaints.

“There are three meeting dates before the next special session,” Carpenter said. “A timeline and a structure for how we’re going to accomplish this has never been discussed.”

Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, co-facilitator of the group, said he agreed with their complaints but noted that working with the lawmakers’ different schedules made things difficult.

“We can only move as fast as our slowest-moving pieces,” Kreiss-Tomkins said. “People are not always 100% available.”

Members have not yet started drafting proposals for the special session and are still trying to establish a common understanding of the state’s financial picture.

“There’s a lot of conversations about the basic (financial) assumptions, that’s really important,” said Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, who is a member of the working group, in a phone interview with the Empire. “We have to all start at the same place to build solutions.”

At the group’s third meeting, lawmakers heard a presentation from Department of Revenue Deputy Commissioner Mike Barnhill on the state’s obligations for public employee pension payments. At the last meeting too, the group didn’t work on proposals but heard a presentation from the Legislative Finance Division about state finances.

[Lawmakers say group working to solve budget woes must pick up the pace]

But a looming deadline can be a good motivator for lawmakers, McCabe said, and while he was frustrated with the pace of the meetings he thought there was some progress being made. Still, he said, lawmakers were having trouble agreeing on some of the underlying financial assumptions.

McCabe said the group was having trouble agreeing on assumptions for the state’s future return on investments.

“Some (lawmakers) would rather use the 6.2% that our auditors say is a good starting point,” McCabe told the Empire, referring to projections from Callan, the state’s financial consultant. “And there are some that want a more conservative amount.”

Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, the group’s other facilitator, said there would be a discussion about scheduling at the next meeting set for 3 p.m. Thursday.

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

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