Agreement reached by Senate, House majorities

  • By Becky Bohrer
  • Saturday, April 25, 2015 9:52pm
  • News

JUNEAU — Senate President Kevin Meyer says agreement has been reached between the Senate and House majorities on a budget.

A conference committee of House and Senate negotiators had been scheduled to meet late Saturday afternoon but the meeting was delayed while awaiting drafting.

Meyer said he hoped to have the budget on the Senate floor Sunday.

There remained an issue, however, of the House securing a three-fourths vote to draw from the constitutional budget reserve to help cover costs for this year and next.

On Friday, legislative leaders raised the potential of passing a state spending plan without a vote authorizing a draw from Alaska’s constitutional budget reserve fund.

House Speaker Mike Chenault said if the House and Senate majorities reach an agreement on education funding, which has been a sticking point in talks, they could finish up the budgets and leave. As of Saturday, an agreement hadn’t been reached with the House’s Democratic-led minority, support from which is needed for the House to reach the threshold required to tap the constitutional budget reserve.

A three-fourths vote is generally needed in each the House and Senate for such a draw. Fifteen of the Senate’s 20 members are in the majority, and majority rules call for members to support the budget.

Chenault said not having that vote wouldn’t stop lawmakers from leaving; it would just prevent tapping the budget reserve fund for now, he said.

But it could mean tapping other accounts, including ones that fund state-sponsored merit scholarships for students and help rural Alaskans with high energy costs. Even then, lawmakers likely would have to come back later this year to address the deficit.

“The question is, is it worth it for them to do that and not provide opportunities for public education,” House Minority Leader Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, said of potentially tapping those pots.

House Finance Committee Co-Chairman Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, said he didn’t think there was much appetite to tap those funds, but he said different options have been laid out for how the state can pay its bills.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Bill Walker said by email that Walker would like to see the Legislature pass a fully funded budget, not a partially funded one. Walker budget director Pat Pitney said that once the new fiscal year starts July 1, the government would be able to operate into the fall with existing revenue before a draw from the constitutional budget reserve would be needed.

In an interview Thursday, Senate President Kevin Meyer also raised the specter of coming back to revisit the three-quarters vote later this year.

Failure to reach agreement on the budget sent the Legislature, which had been scheduled to adjourn on Sunday, into overtime. Talks have been occurring not only between the House and Senate but also between the House majority and minority.

“Right now, we’re trying to make sure that we have a package put together that all of us can walk out saying that we understand Alaska’s limitations but we also know our potential,” Tuck said. “And we need to have a budget that expresses those values in both ways.”

Chenault, R-Nikiski, said he hoped to still reach the three-quarters vote, but not at any cost. Republican leaders have bristled at adding to the budget in the face of multibillion-dollar deficits given the fall in oil prices.

House Democrats say they’ve offered alternatives to offset items they would like to see restored or added to the budget, including revisiting the state’s oil tax credits or expanding Medicaid and accepting the federal dollars that come with that.

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