Senate Finance rolls out proposal meant to spur talks

  • By Becky Bohrer
  • Sunday, May 31, 2015 11:57pm
  • News

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — The Senate Finance Committee on Sunday proposed a version of the budget similar to what lawmakers passed in late April as a way to force negotiations between the House and Senate on a spending plan.

The House early Saturday passed what was seen as a compromise between that chamber’s majority and minority. But senators balked at some of the terms aimed at garnering sufficient minority support to authorize a draw from savings to help balance the budget, including honoring of cost-of-living increases in negotiated union contracts at a time when the state faces multibillion-dollar deficits amid low oil prices and state positions are being cut.

The House plan also was incomplete, still needing language to be added to authorize the draw from the constitutional budget reserve to cover costs for the fiscal year starting July 1.

The Senate was scheduled to meet Sunday afternoon to consider the Senate Finance proposal.

This comes on the eve of when notices are scheduled to be sent to thousands of state employees warning of potential temporary layoffs if a fully funded budget is not passed by July 1. Legislative leaders had said they hoped to avoid the notices being sent if possible to spare additional stress from being put on workers, though Senate Finance co-chair Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, also has said that he regarded that as a soft deadline.

Alaska has billions of dollars in reserves that could be used to fund the budget. But a dispute over how much to spend, and what to spend money on, has complicated tapping into the constitutional budget reserve, which calls for a three-quarter vote in each the House and Senate. And tapping into other pots of money is politically tricky.

During Sunday’s meeting, held in Anchorage, Kelly called the panel’s proposal part of a strategy to get the budget into a conference committee where House and Senate negotiators can try to come to terms. To reach a conference committee, the House would have to reject the Senate plan.

The inability of lawmakers to reach agreement on a budget sent the Legislature, which had been scheduled to adjourn April 19, into overtime. In late April, lawmakers passed a partially funded budget after the House could not secure the 30 votes called for to access the constitutional budget reserve to cover costs. The Democratic-led minority opposed cuts to education funding contained in that budget, along with the rejection of union pay increases, among other things.

During the ensuing special sessions, the Senate has let the House take the lead on the budget, since that side had the trouble securing the budget reserve vote.

The Senate Finance plan retains from the budget passed in late April the $16.5 million cut to the per-student funding formula. But the committee adopted an amendment to provide $16.1 million in funding outside the formula. That’s half the $32 million that lawmakers last session approved in one-time funds for schools for the coming fiscal year but that lawmakers this year repealed, saying the state’s financial situation had changed.

Committee co-chair Anna MacKinnon, R-Eagle River, said the amendment was intended to provide flexibility in discussions with the House on education funding.

Committee member Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, said Senate Finance is approaching this process with a spirit of compromise. But Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, called the committee’s actions “a very troubling turn of events.”

In an interview, Wielechowski said the House proposal seemed to have buy-in on that side. “An olive branch was offered, and they set it on fire,” he said.

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