JUNEAU — With the scheduled end of session looming Sunday, lawmakers were trying to reach agreement on a spending package, an effort complicated by a lengthy joint session on confirmations and a minority leader stuck in Anchorage for much of the day.
The result was the Alaska Legislature heading into overtime, with the House adjourning before 8 p.m. until Monday morning.
Education was a major sticking point, with the Senate having proposed deeper cuts than the House and Gov. Bill Walker. Senate President Kevin Meyer said lawmakers are “basically being held hostage by Democrats who want to spend more money in a time where we don’t have the money to spend.”
“We’re not anxious to spend a lot more money,” he said, but noted education was an area the Senate would be willing to talk about.
Budget negotiators met briefly Saturday afternoon to close out some items, including agreeing to ease the level of some of the proposed funding cuts to the state ferry system. But they failed to reach agreement on other contentious items, with education perhaps chief among those. A meeting scheduled for Sunday morning was put on hold while talks continued, but ultimately it was never held. A joint session to take up confirmation of Walker’s new Cabinet-level department heads and appointments to boards and commissions consumed much of the day, about 5 ½ hours.
The minority’s main negotiator, Anchorage Democrat Chris Tuck, missed much of the day after leaving Juneau for the birth of his daughter. He missed a flight he planned to catch back to Juneau early Sunday afternoon but was expected back in town Sunday night.
The House, in its version of the budget, forwarded-funded education at 90 percent for fiscal year 2017, as Gov. Bill Walker proposed. But the Senate cut $47.5 million in education funds for the upcoming fiscal year, which starts July 1, and did not forward-fund education for 2017. Parents and other education supporters camped out on the second-floor Capitol benches, between the House and Senate chambers. Members of the House majority have shared minority concerns with the level of Senate cuts.
House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, said education was probably the biggest issue between the House and Senate.
The proposed capital budget would further cut $52 million in one-time funds for schools between 2016 and 2017, a cut first proposed by Walker.
Negotiations were taking place not only between the House and Senate but also the House majority and minority. It has been expected that a three-fourths vote would be called for to draw from funds from the constitutional budget reserve fund to help balance the budget. In the House, that would require Democratic support to meet that threshold.
Language to authorize the draw, included in the Senate version of the capital budget, was removed from the House Finance version. It wasn’t clear what any eventual language would look like.
Sunday had marked the scheduled end of a 90-day session where the dominant issue has been the budget and trying to cut spending amid a crash in oil prices. Alaska, which relies heavily on oil revenues to fund state government, is facing projected multibillion-dollar deficits.
The focus has been on spending cuts and reducing the size of state government before beginning any discussion on additional revenue in earnest. Democrats have said that while cuts are needed, they need to be made smartly.
“There’s an insistence on major cuts to education,” said Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage. “You only go to first grade one time.”
The day included a joint session to consider the confirmation of Walker’s appointees; Walker’s attorney general, Craig Richards, whose past work on oil and gas issues and a recent decision to sign on to a brief with other states defending same-sex-marriage bans raised concerns with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, was confirmed 36-23. That was the most divisive vote for a department head; a number of department heads won unanimous support.
Several of his board appointments failed.
The Senate had on its docket an Interior energy bill that Walker has called a must-have.
There was no movement toward acting on Medicaid expansion, another Walker priority and something minority Democrats were pushing for. The governor has indicated that he could call a special session for lawmakers to take it up if they didn’t address it before adjourning.