JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Alaska lawmakers fell short of a self-imposed goal of completing their most pressing work Friday, with key measures, including a state spending package and bills related to the coronavirus, yet to be finalized.
Friday marked Day 67 of a legislative session that, under the constitution, can run up to 121 days, with an option to extend further. But many lawmakers are eager to get home amid concerns with the coronavirus, and Friday was targeted by legislative leaders as a goal for completing work seen as more critical.
Senate President Cathy Giessel, an Anchorage Republican, said goals are important but noted they don’t always come to fruition. The Senate adjourned late Friday with plans to resume work Saturday.
Outstanding budget issues included a proposed $1,000 economic stimulus payment the Senate put in its version of the budget. That would require a draw from Alaska Permanent Fund earnings beyond a withdrawal limit many lawmakers have not wanted to violate. Unsettled, too, is a fall Permanent Fund dividend payment to residents. The Senate proposed a roughly $1,000 dividend. The House did not address either issue in its version of the budget.
House and Senate negotiators have reached tentative agreement on many other budget items, including transferring about $1.1 billion from earnings to the constitutionally protected principal of the permanent fund. Earnings are used to help cover government expenses and traditionally have been used to pay annual dividends to residents.
Sen. Donny Olson, a Golovin Democrat, questioned a transfer, citing a need to maintain access to funds, particularly for emergencies. But Sen. Bert Stedman, a Sitka Republican, said he doesn’t want the earnings reserve to be “liquidated,” the way he said savings accounts have been.
Lawmakers have drawn down savings amid disagreement over how best to resolve a persistent budget deficit.
Earlier this week, the Legislature passed a partially funded supplemental spending bill. The bill, among other things, was intended to cover wildfire costs and Medicaid expenses after cuts made to the program last year weren’t realized as anticipated. The bill also called for $15 million for state health department emergency programs to respond to the coronavirus.
The House, however, failed to muster the minimum 30 votes its side needed to access the constitutional budget reserve fund to cover expenses beyond a previously authorized $250 million draw from the account for supplemental expenses. The same three-quarter vote threshold had to be met to prevent various state accounts from being swept into the reserve.
Some minority House Republicans who voted no on the budget reserve provisions had referred to their vote as a negotiating chip. Others suggested they didn’t mind sweeping accounts into the reserve fund.
Besides the budget, lawmakers were working on a bill with various relief provisions intended to help minimize economic impacts from the virus. That bill had yet to move out of the Senate Finance Committee, and still must work its way to the House.
The Senate also failed to agree to House changes to a bill that would extend the public health disaster emergency declared by Gov. Mike Dunleavy over the virus.
The Legislature has passed a resolution that would let lawmakers recess for more than three days after sending an operating budget bill to Dunleavy.