Forty-five days through its 90-day session, the Alaska Legislature appears to be in much the same position it was last year, when lawmakers deadlocked and needed 30 extra days to pass a complete budget.
“I think we could end up in a stalemate,” said Rep. Sam Kito III, D-Juneau, on Thursday.
This year, as last year, the key point is the Constitutional Budget Reserve. To spend from this $8.2 billion account requires three-quarters of the House and three-quarters vote of the Senate. The Republican-led Senate majority can get its needed votes without the minority. The Republican-led House majority can’t, and that gives the Democratic-led minority a big card to play in budget negotiations.
“Right now, we’re in the beginning stages of everything; it wouldn’t make sense to give up a three-quarters vote at this stage,” said Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage and the House minority leader, during a Tuesday press conference.
A draft version of the state’s operating budget is expected to be voted upon by the House next Friday, March 11. If the House approves the budget but fails to reach a three-quarters vote on spending from the budget reserve, it will effectively have a budget with no way to pay for it.
That’s not entirely a bad thing, legislators said. With weeks left to go in the session, there’s ample time for lawmakers to pass any of the many tax and revenue bills that have been proposed in the Legislature. If those garner approval, they would reduce the amount the state needs to take from savings to balance the budget this year.
“I do think we need to have more serious movement on the revenue measures” before considering a budget reserve vote, Kito said.
Last year’s stalemate was driven by budget cuts that minority lawmakers thought were excessive. The majority compromised on some of those cuts in order to get the three-quarters vote it needed.
This time around, Kito said, “everything’s been pretty collegial. I’ve been disappointed with some of the reductions, but the process for me has worked much better than it did last year.”
Instead of cuts, revenue may be a sticking point. On Tuesday, Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage and a minority member, said he wants to see the state raise revenue, not just cut the budget.
“I think that it’s going to be very hard to get some of us to make tough votes on fiscal reform while gutting the budget,” he said.
Kito, for his part, said he wants to see the Legislature balance at least “60 percent” of the state’s deficit this year before using savings to pay for the rest.
The state’s deficit, currently about $3.7 billion, rises with every day the price of a barrel of oil remains below $56.
Kito said an impasse, while a possibility, isn’t a certainty yet.
Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau and a member of the House majority, agrees with that point of view. Through Wednesday, the House Finance committee (of which she is a member) will be considering amendments to the budget.
If some of those amendments come from the minority and are approved, they could swing enough votes to meet the three-quarters standard.
“We’ll know much more when we get through the next few days, but I’m hopeful,” she said. “I’m an optimistic person.”
Contact reporter James Brooks at firstname.lastname@example.org.