JUNEAU — A lack of agreement on the size of the Permanent Fund’s dividend threatens to derail the Alaska Legislature’s plan to end its proceedings before Wednesday’s deadline. If lawmakers don’t pass a budget by then, they could be forced into a special session.
The Alaska House and Senate held marathon floor sessions Monday with dozens of bills at stake. In the meantime, budget negotiations have been relegated to closed-door discussions among members of a conference committee tasked with finding a compromise between the House and Senate versions of the bill.
The Senate budget, which was rejected by the House on Saturday, included $5,500 in payments to Alaska residents. The House version of the budget included half that amount in payments.
Whether the Legislature completes its business by Wednesday depends on the work of the committee, said Republican Sitka Sen. Bert Stedman, who chairs the conference committee.
“Normally we have a few weeks to do it,” Stedman said. The committee is due to end its work Tuesday at noon to allow enough time for members of the House and Senate to review the committee’s spending plan and vote on it before midnight Wednesday.
At a Monday afternoon meeting, committee members quickly agreed on several budget items. But the dividend, which is widely recognized as the main sticking point in the budget process, was not mentioned. The committee is scheduled to meet again on Tuesday morning.
The meeting came after several hours of closed-door discussions between committee members and their staff as they worked to find agreement where Senate and House plans diverge.
The other members of the committee are Senator Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks; Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage; Rep. Kelly Merrick, R-Eagle River; Rep. Daniel Ortiz, I-Ketchikan; and Rep. Bart LeBon, R-Fairbanks.
Stedman and Bishop strongly objected to the $5,500 payouts — split between a full statutory dividend of $4,200 and $1,300 in one-time energy assistance checks. The plan would have cost the state more than $3.5 billion and forced the state to spend most of the windfall revenue generated due to rising oil prices attributed to the war in Ukraine.
Merrick, Ortiz and LeBon all voted against the Senate budget in the House on Saturday.
But on Monday, the members of the committee were discreet about the amount of the dividend that would emerge from their work.
Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy remained silent on the budget process as the legislature neared its deadline. Dunleavy met with members of the House last week as they considered the Senate budget. Lawmakers said the purpose of the meetings was to pressure House members to vote in favor of the $5,500 payments to Alaskans.
When the House rejected the Senate budget, Dunleavy issued a brief statement, but he and his staff remained largely silent on their goal for the amount of the dividend and the priority bills they would like to see passed by the Assembly. legislative before Wednesday’s deadline.
Meanwhile, Monday’s House and Senate sessions lasted from morning to night and featured discussions on a wide range of bills, including those relating to mental health and public safety.
But notable bills have remained off the schedule as they bogged down in committee hearings, threatening their prospects of approval before the end of the session. These include a bill that would restore political campaign contribution limits after a lawsuit struck down state limits earlier this year. They also include a reading bill that failed to pass a House education committee last week. The governor has indicated he would veto further education funding without a book reading bill.
The final days of session often bring frenzied energy as lawmakers forgo rules and procedures to speed bills through the legislative process and hold sessions that last late into the night. In recent days, lawmakers say it’s hard to say which bills will cross the finish line and whether the two houses will agree on a budget that will allow them to avoid a special session.
“Anything is possible,” said Rep. Calvin Schrage, I-Anchorage, who sponsored the bill to limit campaign contributions.
“When something is hugely important, and the Legislative Assembly gathers around it, we’ve been known to accomplish some pretty huge feats and sometimes that involves people running around like crazy, rushing to get a report of committee to the other sufficient body.”