Entering their final 2 regular weeks, Alaska legislators are narrowing their focus

Reps. Jesse Sumner, R-Wasilla, and Jamie Allard, R-Eagle River, talk to Speaker of the House Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, during a break in the Alaska House of Representatives floor session on Monday, April 29, 2024. (James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

Dozens of firefighters protested outside the Alaska Capitol last week, waving signs and chanting as they urged the Alaska House of Representatives to advance a long-simmering pension bill.

They’re likely to be disappointed.

On Friday, the House failed, on a 19-19 vote, to advance the pension bill for further consideration.

As the Alaska Legislature enters the final two weeks of its regular session, lawmakers are consolidating their attention on a handful of subjects, rolling together bills that deal with particular subjects into bigger “omnibus” legislation that includes several smaller bills all rolled together into one because it’s speedier and easier to pass them together.

“In the best world, you wouldn’t be doing that, but it is not unusual at all,” said Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage and chair of the Senate Rules Committee, which schedules bills for floor votes.

Already, lawmakers have debuted omnibus bills on energy topics, education and crime. An election-related omnibus bill is expected soon, and debate on the state’s annual budget bills is expected to continue until the end of the session.

Many uncontroversial bills, such as those that rename bridges or extend state boards, are expected to pass before lawmakers adjourn, but when it comes to big policy changes, legislators say, there’s not much certainty.

“My concern is primarily the amount of time we have left and the issues that we have in front of us,” said Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak. “We will do the best job we can in the time we have left.”

On the budget

The Alaska Senate will take up its version of Alaska’s state operating budget starting Wednesday. In part because the Senate is governed by a bipartisan supermajority, few — if any — amendments are expected to pass. The majority’s priorities are already incorporated into the current version of the bill.

The Senate’s draft budget contains a smaller Permanent Fund dividend — about $1,580 per recipient — than the $2,270 PFD proposed in the House’s draft budget.

The figures are the biggest difference between the two proposals, and the Senate’s smaller PFD is designed to address an estimated $270 million gap in the House’s draft comprehensive spending plan, said Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka.

Stedman said the House failed to account for the size of the state’s capital budget — which pays for construction and renovation projects statewide — and the cost of other legislation that has passed or will pass the Legislature this year.

When the Senate’s draft budget passes this week, lawmakers will set up a conference committee to draft a compromise between the House and Senate spending plans.

That compromise will have many policy implications. For example, the Senate version of the budget defunds the state-owned corporation in charge of licensing and building a trans-Alaska natural gas pipeline. The House’s version contains funding for the corporation.

The latest figures from the Legislative Finance Division estimate a $113 million surplus at the end of the current fiscal year, June 30, and that money could be diverted for use in the final compromise version of the budget, which covers services between July 1, 2024, and June 30, 2025.

Energy legislation

Since the start of this year’s legislative session, the Alaska House’s predominantly Republican coalition majority has said that legislation needed to address a pending Southcentral Alaska energy crunch was its top priority.

With two weeks left to go, no energy bill has passed the Legislature, and lawmakers in both the House and Senate are considering tax incentives for natural gas producers in Cook Inlet, bills to streamline the storage of natural gas in Southcentral Alaska, and bills that would rewrite the rules governing electricity that’s transmitted from one utility to another in Alaska’s Railbelt grid.

Also on the docket are bills dealing with community solar projects, geothermal energy, and rules for the injection of carbon dioxide underground.

Many of those subjects may be combined in the last two weeks, House Rules Chair Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, told reporters last week.

“I think that’s generally the way it’ll happen,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, said she believes the carbon-dioxide bill, which has already passed the House, is a priority for Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

If that bill, viewed as a boon for the oil and gas industry, failed to pass the Legislature during the regular session, she said she believes he would call lawmakers into a special session on the topic.

Education bills

At the start of this year’s legislative session, the leaders of the Alaska Senate’s coalition majority — comprised of nine Democrats and eight Republicans — said education reform, including greater funding for public schools, was its top priority.

After Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed a Senate-endorsed bill that passed with bipartisan support — and after House Republicans killed a veto override — the predominantly Republican House majority caucus has been advancing an alternative, known as House Bill 392.

That bill includes priorities advanced by the governor and House Republicans, including changes to the way charter schools are approved.

If that bill advances — it’s currently in the House Finance Committee — it may also pick up one of two bills intended to fix problems with the state’s correspondence education program.

A state judge last month struck down two state laws governing the program, leaving the parents of more than 22,000 students uncertain about whether they will receive state reimbursements for some of their spending.

Members of the state House and state Senate have introduced separate fixes, and both bills are expected to advance in the last two weeks of the session.

Even if no education bill passes, both the House and Senate budget drafts include a one-time boost to the state’s per-student funding formula for public schools, though the exact amount of the boost is subject to Dunleavy’s veto authority.

Criminal justice legislation

On Monday, Sen. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced that he would be amending anti-fentanyl legislation backed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy to include several other crime-related legislative priorities.

Johnson called the fentanyl bill “essential” last week and said it’s also essential to fix a legal loophole that allows people to avoid registering on the state’s sex offender list.

Both items have been included in the Senate’s bill.

House Bill 259, establishing the Council on Human and Sex Trafficking, is a priority of House Judiciary Chair Sarah Vance, R-Homer, she said last week, as is legislation changing the name of child pornography to “child sexual abuse material.”

The name change is included in the Senate omnibus, but not HB 259. Vance said she’s seeking to add human trafficking issues to the bill.

Another change with House and Senate support is a bill that allows crime victims to offer testimony to a grand jury without having to appear in person. The hearsay exemption avoids retraumatizing those victims, legislators say.

Elections legislation

In February, the state House approved a bill that would allow the Alaska Division of Elections to trim the state’s voter rolls more quickly.

The Senate’s state affairs committee, led by Sen. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, is preparing to turn that House bill into an elections omnibus, Wielechowski said, and is “putting together some components that have been heavily studied over the years in this body that I think are fairly noncontroversial.”

A Kawasaki aide said the bill will be scheduled for a hearing Thursday. He declined to say what components might be included, but the committee has previously examined several topics, including the idea of ballot “curing,” which would allow Alaskans to fix an incorrect signature on an absentee ballot in order to have it counted.

This story originally appeared in the Alaska Beacon and is republished here with permission.

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