Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, right, speaks to other representatives on the House of Representatives floor on Wednesday. (Alex McCarthy | Juneau Empire)

Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, right, speaks to other representatives on the House of Representatives floor on Wednesday. (Alex McCarthy | Juneau Empire)

Permanent Fund Dividend looms as House wades through budget

Ferry system survives one proposed cut during debate

As members of the Alaska House of Representatives debated possible changes to their budget proposal, a topic they didn’t talk about all day hung over their heads.

Speaker of the House Bryce Edgmon and House Finance Committee Co-Chair Neal Foster both said in interviews Wednesday that debate has gone fairly well so far but they’re waiting to see what happens when the House begins discussing the Permanent Fund Dividend.

As of 4 p.m. Wednesday, the PFD had not yet been brought up on the House floor, but the floor session continued into the evening.

Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, right, speaks to other representatives on the House of Representatives floor on Wednesday. (Alex McCarthy | Juneau Empire)

Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, right, speaks to other representatives on the House of Representatives floor on Wednesday. (Alex McCarthy | Juneau Empire)

Neither Gov. Mike Dunleavy nor the House Finance Committee included the PFD in their budget proposals, electing to deal with the two issues separately. Edgmon, an Independent from Dillingham, said it’s not clear yet whether budget discussions on the House floor will include talking about the PFD.

“We’re working our way through that at this point,” Edgmon said. “It’s a big issue. It’s a huge issue. We have people on both sides, on every side of the Permanent Fund Dividend issue possible. Some wanting a smaller, more sustainable PFD, some wanting a full PFD with larger budget cuts.”

Neither Edgmon nor Foster, a Democrat from Nome, ventured a guess on what kind of PFD amendments might be proposed.

The first two days of debates on the floor have yielded very few major changes to the budget. Multiple amendments approved Wednesday actually increased spending, including one from Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, who proposed a $750,000 increase to the Alaska Court System to hire more prosecutors and staff.

[Alaska chief justice requests funding for cybersecurity]

House, governor get talking

House leaders met with the governor early Tuesday afternoon, and Edgmon said the meeting was cordial. Without getting into specifics of the meeting, Edgmon said House members are trying to get on the same page as the governor.

“We continue talking big picture stuff and what the governor’s expectations are from here on out,” Edgmon said, “and what we can do to sort of partner up to get the Legislature adjourned on time and if at all possible avoid a special session.”

Dunleavy was critical of the House on Tuesday, expressing his disappointment in the slow pace of the House’s progress and the fact that his crime bills and proposed constitutional amendments are not moving very quickly through committees.

One point of contention Dunleavy mentioned was that the House began its budget proposal not with his proposed budget but with the budget plan outlined last year by former Gov. Bill Walker. David Teal, the director of the nonpartisan Legislative Finance Division, said Wednesday that the House’s process is “absolutely standard practice” and that it would have been very strange to start with the governor’s proposed budget.

“Apparently, the governor believes the Legislature should have started with his bill,” Teal said via email. “That would have made identifying/debating changes more difficult. And, although one could argue that the destination would be the same regardless of the starting point, starting with the Governor’s bill would not have been a standard approach.”

Ferry system survives major cuts, for now

Rep. Colleen Sullivan-Leonard, R-Wasilla, proposed a budget amendment Wednesday that would have cut the Alaska Marine Highway System’s funding from $129 million to $86 million, according to the figures in the amendment.

Sullivan-Leonard said she heard Alaskans when they turned out in record numbers to speak against Dunleavy’s proposed cuts to the ferry system — a 75% cut in the next fiscal year.

“Alaskans want a ferry system. I believe in the ferry system,” Sullivan-Leonard said. “Unfortunately what we have before us is a fiscal situation that does not support a transportation system that is reliant on a 200% subsidy.”

The amendment failed, being voted down 24-15.

• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.

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