As the second special legislative session nears its end and deadlines for federal funds loom over Juneau, lawmakers continue to have their flags firmly planted on one side or the other in the debates surrounding the capital budget and the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend.
Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski, said the House Minority caucus is struggling to find a way forward. Carpenter is not in Juneau, but has been speaking from the peninsula with the House Minority.
“My advice to everybody — especially in minority caucus — is to let the majority do what the majority is going to do,” Carpenter said. “They have more than 21 votes. They can pass a capital budget and they don’t need the minority to do so.”
The House of Representatives Wednesday passed an appropriations bill, HB 2001, that essentially reverses many of the line-item vetoes included in Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s budget and is now awaiting a vote in the Senate. That vote was made along caucus lines, 21 to 10, with several members of both caucuses excused from Juneau. That bill did not include a decision on the amount for this year’s permanent fund dividend.
Including Carpenter, 10 representatives were absent from the capitol Thursday. Rep. Gary Knopp, R-Kenai/Soldotna, said the absence is making the legislative process more difficult.
“It’s been a challenge to get people here,” Knopp said. “I get it. Everyone has a life. Both sides have members excused. But the capital budget needs a three-fourths majority vote.”
Knopp said he thinks the House has secured the votes needed to pass the capital budget, which is scheduled for Monday.
The matter of the permanent fund — another sticking point among the sharply divided legislators — is being addressed in another bill, HB 2003. The measure made it through the House Finance committee on Thursday and is set for a vote on the House floor Friday. Discussions on the House floor Thursday focused on the unresolved debate about which statutory formula to use to determine the amount of this year’s PFD.
There’s been talk among legislators to discuss adopting a new statutory formula for the permanent fund dividend during the special session. Knopp said he doesn’t see it as a possibility at this time.
“There could be a fall session where we discuss that,” Knopp said. “We’ve put out a compromise on the PFD that would give people $1,600 now and the other $1,400 after we’ve adjusted the statutory formula.”
Knopp said the big question is whether or not the governor will agree to that.
“If we have to debate this formula for the next three years, so be it,” Knopp said. “But it needs to be changed. Even those that want to use the old formula this time realize that it needs to be addressed. So this time around, whether we use the old formula or the PMV (percent of market value) formula from SB 26, we’re going to be violating one statute or another. We might as well make the fiscally responsible decision.”
Carpenter said the statutes and constitution in place need to be followed.
“Pay it or change it,” he said.
The Clarion reached out to Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, for comment on Thursday but received no response.
If the Legislature can’t work together to complete their work before the special session ends July 31, Dunleavy said in a media conference call Thursday he would have to seriously consider calling another session.
“If the work isn’t complete we have to,” Dunleavy said. “We’ve been hoping for months that we get our work done. I’ve modified our call. I’ve compromised on the call. I’m open to negotiations but the Legislature has to be able to work with itself. That’s the part of the story that’s not being told. I think once we get more folks working together on that end, I think we’ll see some movement.”
Carpenter said another special session would be a travesty.
The Clarion spoke to members of the peninsula community Thursday about their thoughts on the state budget and this year’s legislative process.
Petria Falkenberg has been living in Kenai since 1957. She said she’s very disappointed with peninsula representatives.
“I don’t think they are representing the people in this state,” Falkenberg said.
She said she was sad to see some representatives go to Juneau after Dunleavy called the special session in Wasilla.
“I was very saddened that some of the other representatives went to Juneau and not where the governor was or where people could get there and state what they thought,” Falkenberg said. “I wasn’t happy with one of our representatives who held up our session for a month before it could even get going. That was a waste of taxpayer dollars.”
Several community members the Clarion spoke with were concerned about Dunleavy’s cuts to education.
Raven Patterson, a recent graduate from Nikiski Middle/High who lives in Kenai now, said she did not support cuts to education.
“I think it’s stupid they’re taking away from education of all things, and took away all of those scholarships for the kids who relied on it. Now they have nothing. I don’t know how they expect students to get a good education if they keep taking away all the money?”
In Soldotna, Chris Towne is a teacher at Soldotna High School and a graduate of University of Alaska Anchorage. He said he’s not happy about cuts from the governor’s budget.
“For them to cut funding for education, and then UAF, and then the arts council, just to promise everybody that dividend is absolutely ludicrous, I think,” Towne said.
Towne said he thinks the Legislature is being childish, and local lawmakers are not doing their jobs.
“I mean, I guess (Knopp’s) doing OK,” Towne said. “But, I’m not impressed with him either, I mean at all, at any level. I think he’s trying. I’m not a fan (of Micciche). I think he’ll tell you anything and then he just does the opposite. I think he’s your typical politician. I don’t like him.”
Patsy Clifford, a Kenai resident, said she supported legislators standing against the governor.
“I think he’s cutting everything way too quickly,” Clifford said. “He’s stripping everything — education, retirement, senior centers, hospitals — I mean really, too much.”
Soldotna High School incoming senior Eve Downing contributed to this article.