With 19 days left in the 90-day session, the Senate Finance Committee has not been able to hold a hearing on the House version of the operating budget. Legislative overtime looks likely for the third year in a row.
The House got bogged down in consideration of 130 floor amendments, passing the budget (HB 57) on March 20. But House Minority Leader Charisse Millett (R-Anchorage) asked for reconsideration of her vote, which the House majority delayed until Monday.
“For whatever reason, they decided to delay ’til Monday. They had 22 votes on the floor. That’s all they need to move that bill. I was kind of — I won’t say shocked — but it was interesting that we delayed until Monday to send that bill over to the other side,” House Minority Whip Mike Chenault (R-Nikiski) said during a press conference Thursday.
Friday, in a quiet move, House Majority Leader Chris Tuck (D-Anchorage) asked for reconsideration to expire, allowing the budget to be transmitted to the Senate without lengthy re-litigation on the House floor or another vote.
House minority members indicated that three more days would not change their votes against the budget or to fail a clause allowing the budget to take effect less than 90 days after being signed by the governor.
If the effective date clause were to fail when the House considers the budget conference committee report following negotiations between the House and Senate, government would not be funded for the first months of the new fiscal year.
“There’s no interest in shutting down government,” Chenault told reporters last week.
“This is just a way to make sure that the minority’s voice is heard,” he explained. “At the end of the day, I don’t believe there’s anyone that I’ve talked to in my caucus that actually wants to see government shut down on July 1.”
“To me, it really was a vote of discontent, and it was a protest vote,” Rep. Jennifer Johnston (R-Anchorage) added.
The House minority is waiting to see what changes the Senate makes before potentially turning that protest vote into leverage.
“It’s not as easy to find cuts today as it was three years ago,” Senate Majority Leader Peter Micciche (R-Soldotna) acknowledged Monday during a press conference. “Many of the departments are right-sized.”
The subcommittee recommendations met the Senate’s goal of five-percent reductions to the Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS), the Department of Transportation (DOT), and the University of Alaska. The recommendations are also more in line with the House minority’s budget-cutting efforts.
“I think the whole world knows there’s going to be a five-percent cut in the Senate budget for those four key areas of spend, if you will: education; Department of Transportation; the university; and HSS,” Micciche said.
However, the Department of Education & Early Development (DEED) budget was not finalized prior to public testimony.
“The public should be well aware that it is the intent of the Senate to have a budget that has a five-percent reduction” to DEED, Senate Finance Co-chair Lyman Hoffman (D-Bethel) said in opening remarks of an unrelated hearing. “It is not the intent, as the chairman of the operating budget, to reopen that item or any other item at this stage.”
“The cut to education is a real one,” Micciche insisted Monday. “There will be a cut to the [Base Student Allocation] this year.”
Micciche admitted that only $200 million of the $300 million Senate leaders planned to cut will appear in the budget this year, with the balance likely to come from legislation crafted over the interim. He said the Senate is looking at pooling employee health care to lower DEED costs, but wants to work with health care providers before proceeding.
“We believe there are significant savings, significant savings that do not reduce dollars to the classroom, that do not reduce key constitutionally-required services to Alaskans,” Micciche said.
Hoffman noted the Senate has been waiting two weeks for the House to transmit the budget.
Before the budget was officially referred to Senate Finance Monday, the committee canceled Monday and Tuesday hearings. The move likely allows the legal team that drafts bills to re-write the House budget to reflect Senate subcommittee recommendations.
That means the earliest that Senate Finance could consider amendments to HB 57 would be Wednesday, Day 72.
The time available for an eventual budget conference committee to reach a compromise is shrinking.
Nevertheless, Micciche said the legislature is trying to respect the statutory restriction on legislative sessions.
“I think we should be able to get our work done every year in 90 days,” he said. “We’re not cramming for an exam here. We need to get our work done, and we need to keep our schedule and keep busy from Day 1 to Day 90.”
Working on Day 90 this year would mean working on Easter, something Micciche indicated his caucus is willing to do to finish on time.
“There are many of us that hold Easter as a holiday of importance,” Micciche said. “The timing is unfortunate, but the schedule’s the same.”
Simply passing the House version of the budget would allow the legislature to gavel out without passing any other bills. HB 57 includes percent-of-market-value (POMV) draws from the Permanent Fund earnings reserve in FY 2017 and FY 2018, closing the FY 2018 deficit.
SB 26 is scheduled for its first House Finance hearing Tuesday.