Alaska House to focus on budget-related bills

JUNEAU — The Alaska House passed a resolution Monday aimed at focusing committee work on the state’s budget deficit, while minority Democrats pushed for a more inclusive process to find budget solutions.

The resolution, which passed 38-1, seeks to limit committees to hearing bills related to the budget and revenue until the House passes a state operating budget to the Senate. That generally happens in the first half of March. House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, told reporters bills that would reduce state spending or raise revenues also would fall under the language of the measure.

The lone no vote was Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, though some Democrats said during the floor discussion they were concerned about whether there would be adequate notice of meetings since the resolution has a provision calling for committee chairs to give at least 24 hours’ notice. This time of year, calendars for the coming week are generally posted the preceding Thursday. Twenty-four hour noticing typically doesn’t take effect until after a version of the budget passes each the House and Senate and a committee of negotiators is appointed to hash out the differences.

The Senate plans to continue its work as normal. Senate President Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, said he didn’t envision a similar resolution in the Senate.

Chenault said the hope is to give as much notice as possible for meetings. He indicated the noticing provision could be revisited if issues with it arise.

The intent is not to speed bills through the process but to provide for as thorough a vetting as possible, said Rep. Craig Johnson, the House Rules chair.

Some subcommittees have been meeting early in the morning or later in the evening, meaning long days for some legislators, said House Minority Leader Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage. Under the process laid out in the resolution, lawmakers will have an opportunity to do clear-headed work, he said.

Neither Meyer nor Chenault dismissed the minority’s suggestion that lawmakers work together outside the confines of the traditional party caucuses in looking for budget solutions this legislative session. There were questions, though, about how that might work.

Tuck and Senate Minority Leader Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, said they took inspiration for the pitch from the work done in crafting the state constitution, when Alaskans with different beliefs and from different walks of life worked together.

Of the Senate’s 20 members, five belong to the minority. Of the 40 members in the House, 13 belong to the Democratic-led minority, including one independent.

The House minority has gained greater prominence since the state has begun using the constitutional budget reserve to help balance the budget. A three-fourths vote of each the House and Senate generally is needed to access it. It took two special sessions last year for the Legislature to reach a budget agreement.

House Majority Leader Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage, said the resolution is a nod toward working together across party aisles with a singular focus on the budget.

“We are doing this so the public understands that this is the only discussion that we will be having for the next three weeks. This is it. It’s all about the budget,” she said during floor debate.

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