Deficit is distant thunder as Legislature convenes

For one day, there were smiles.

At times resembling students returning for the first day of a new high school year, the 30th Alaska Legislature convened Tuesday for at least 90 days of business. Among the 60 lawmakers who took their oaths of office were 15 freshmen, newcomers elected for the first time as part of an anti-incumbent wave last fall.

“There’s so many new people,” said Rep. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks and a veteran returning for his sixth session.

Some lawmakers greeted each other with slaps on the back, handshakes and hugs.

For others, the greetings were civil but correct:

“How are you doing?”

“Fine.”

With an abundance new lawmakers, particularly in the House of Representatives, lawmakers are feeling each other out and coping with the implications of a new coalition House majority that includes Democrats, independents and moderate Republicans.

That coalition is headed by Speaker of the House Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, the first person with Alaska Native ancestry to serve as Speaker of the House.

“It’s my hope that I’m not just the first Alaska Native speaker, but the first in a long line of Alaska Native Speakers,” he said.

Edgmon was greeted by applause from every member of the House — even Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, who moments before had cast the sole vote against Edgmon for Speaker.

“As a candidate, I declared to voters that I would only support candidates for House leadership who are publicly committed to passage of a sustainable budget according to the ISER/Goldsmith model,” Eastman said by email later in the day. “I hope that the Speaker will come my way on this issue, but he has not yet made such a public commitment.”

Eastman’s vote was a reminder that collegiality has its limits: In coming days, lawmakers will debate the best way to solve a multibillion-dollar budget deficit and dwindling savings account.

On a largely organizational and ceremonial Tuesday, those problems were distant thunder.

The Senate offered the most substantive comments of the day.

In a press conference held before the start of ceremonies, incoming Senate President Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, said the Senate Majority is unwilling to consider spending some of the earnings of the Alaska Permanent Fund until other actions are taken.

“We are not going to act on the earnings reserve until there is a spending limit in place and proven reductions,” Kelly said. “That’s something we’re pretty committed to.”

Using Permanent Fund earnings could resolve as much as 60 percent of the state’s present deficit.

The Senate majority is considering cuts of $300 million this year, said Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel. Those cuts would be concentrated in education, health and social services, the University of Alaska and the Department of Transportation.

“Many of the other, smaller, components have already been reduced and targeted,” Hoffman said.

In the House, Kawasaki said the Senate appeared to be throwing down the gauntlet while his body takes a different tack.

“There’s an era of collegiality right now,” Kawasaki said. “I hope that we can play nice in the sandbox for at least the first several weeks.”

Edgmon himself, before taking the oath of office, said the ability to cooperate will be critical.

“The leadership in the House and the Senate is composed of individuals who have longstanding personal and legislative relationships,” he said. “I think that’s going to be a critical element as we go forward.”

If collegiality was the theme of the day, capital-city residents contributed to the spirit with a sign-waving lunchtime “kindness rally” that was part of the Year of Kindness organized by the Juneau Police Department.

Inside the Capitol, Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott offered words of encouragement to the House of Representatives before its members took their oaths of office.

“I have every confidence that what is good in Alaska will continue, and that each of you will work to make Alaska the better place that every Alaskan seeks,” he said.

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