Alaska Legislature gavels in for special session

  • By Becky Bohrer
  • Tuesday, April 28, 2015 11:49pm
  • News

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — The Legislature gaveled in Tuesday for a special session called by the governor after lawmakers adjourned with a partially funded state budget.

But lawmakers were looking at whether they might be able to take a break and reconvene, possibly in Anchorage. Many legislative offices have been packed up and many staff members are gone. House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, said there’s an issue, too, with the impending start of renovation work on the Capitol.

“We’re going to talk to the governor to see if he would allow us a couple-week recess in order for people to get other business taken care of that has been neglected for the last 90 days,” Chenault said.

If there’s a recess, legislators probably would reconvene in Anchorage, but it could be wherever they wanted, with the agreement of the governor, Chenault said. “Whether we work something out or not, we’ll see,” he told reporters.

Walker spokeswoman Grace Jang said by email that Walker “would be very disappointed if the Legislature recessed, as there is ample time now to finish the state’s business.”

The Legislature had been scheduled to adjourn April 19, but failure to reach a budget agreement sent lawmakers into overtime. On Monday, they approved a compromise operating budget before adjourning, but the spending plan failed to garner the support needed in the House to authorize a draw from savings to cover costs for the upcoming fiscal year. The Democrat-led House minority opposed cuts to education and the budget plan’s rejection of negotiated pay increases in labor contracts. They also wanted Medicaid expansion.

Walker’s special session call includes the budget, Medicaid expansion and reform, and legislation relating to sexual assault awareness and prevention programs in schools, the latter of which previously passed the House. Legislators are not obligated to take up or pass any of the items listed.

Walker told reporters late Monday that legislators have worked hard, “but not having a funded budget is a big deal, it’s a big concern.”

Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, called it “irresponsible” for Walker to call an immediate special session, particularly on Medicaid expansion. Legislators are just bringing experts on board to help them evaluate the issue, he said Tuesday from a largely barren office.

“People may feel the pressure to do something, and that something may not be the right thing,” Micciche said. He said he thought it had edged some legislators who had been leaning toward expansion — himself included — toward a “no” vote because they feel that after a difficult session, they are being “forced to make a decision without being adequately prepared.”

Walker submitted a new budget plan Tuesday that has about $94 million more in unrestricted general funds than the compromise budget, according to documents from his budget office. During the debate leading up to the special session, members of the Republican-led majorities balked at adding more in response to concerns raised by Democrats.

In his letter sending his bill to the House and Senate, Walker said his plan accepts nearly all the legislative actions taken during the session but addresses areas where cuts were “too damaging.” His plan would restore funding to the school funding formula for the coming year and honor negotiated pay increases in labor contracts for next year.

The elimination of the one-time school funds for 2016 and 2017 that legislators approved last session would remain. That cut was included in a separate spending package. Walker’s budget director, Pat Pitney, said the governor’s budget plan does not include the scheduled 2.5 percent cost-of-living raises for certain state workers not covered by unions. Lawmakers passed a bill repealing those raises.

Compared with the compromise budget, Walker’s plan, among other things, restores money to the state ferry system. It also includes Medicaid expansion, an issue Walker campaigned on.

The compromise budget included language seeking to bar acceptance or use of federal funds for expansion without an “acceptable reformation plan” and appropriation approved by the Legislature.

The House and Senate Finance committees scheduled hearings Wednesday on Walker’s proposal, which also seeks authorization for a draw from the constitutional budget reserve to cover the costs.

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