A floor session of the Alaska House of Representatives was delayed Thursday, May 12, 2022, as lawmakers discussed in private how to move forward with a packed budget bill passed by the Alaska Senate. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

With thin margins in the House, floor debate is delayed

Vote on budget some call ‘irresonsible’ could be close

Floor debate on the state’s budget bill was delayed Thursday as members of the House of Representatives met in private to discuss a path forward.

With the House Majority Coalition’s thin 21-member majority, some lawmakers are concerned the large budget passed by the Senate this week could pass the body. House floor sessions were canceled Wednesday evening and delayed Thursday morning as lawmakers discussed the situation. Thursday afternoon the House was still delayed to the call of the chair, meaning representatives could be called into session at any time.

“The speaker is working to ensure that the budget that reaches the Governor’s desk is fiscally responsible,” said coalition spokesperson Joe Plesha. “She remains committed to the values outlined in the budget the House passed — putting money into savings to prepare for the eventual drop in oil prices and investing in Alaska’s children by forward funding education and refilling the Higher Education Investment Fund.”

Wednesday, the Senate passed a large budget some have criticized as irresponsible. In floor debate Monday and Tuesday, senators added nearly $1 billion to the state’s budget, diverting the money appropriated to forward fund education to pay an additional $1,300 energy relief payment in addition to the Permanent Fund Dividend.

In a close vote 10-9 vote, Senators for the first time since 2015 voted to follow the state’s statutory formula for the PFD, amounting to roughly $4,300 per Alaskan. Following the statutory formula for the dividend has been a consistent demand of several, mostly Republican members of the Legislature and Gov. Mike Dunleavy, also a Republican. Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, who submitted the amendment to follow the formula said the state is looking at record returns on oil, and this year’s budget was bolstered by federal stimulus funds.

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The House had passed an operating budget in April that included two years of funding for the state’s education system and put more than $1 billion into state savings accounts.

Several senators called the budget reckless, but the bill still received a 15-5 vote in the Senate. Following the vote, Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, said it was unlikely the House would approve the Senate’s bill and that negotiations in a conference committee would bring amounts in the budget down.

But the House only needs 21 votes out of 40 to concur on the bill, and 21 is how many members the House Majority Coalition has. Several Republicans have pushed for a statutory dividend for years and Democrats such as Rep. Geran Tarr, Anchorage, have voted for similar proposals in the past.

In an email, Dunleavy spokesperson Jeff Turner said the governor was meeting with leadership from all four legislative caucuses.

“(Dunleavy) is committed to working with lawmakers on a spending plan that can receive legislative approval by May 18, the constitutional deadline for this year’s legislative session,” Turner said.

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

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