Session reaches constitutional end with work far from done

At constitutional limit, legislators choose between extra time or a special session

JUNEAU — May 17 is the 121st and final day of the Alaska Legislature’s 2017 regular session.

There’s more to come.

Despite four months of work, lawmakers have not agreed upon a fix to the state’s $2.7 billion annual deficit. They have not agreed upon a budget to fund state government past June 30. They have not finished rolling back reforms to the state’s criminal justice system or taken steps requested by Gov. Bill Walker to fight the opioid drug abuse epidemic.

They need more time, and there are two ways to get it.

On their own, they can vote to give themselves more time. If two-thirds of the House approves and two-thirds of the Senate agrees, lawmakers can extend their session for 10 more days.

As of May 12, Senate President Pete Kelly said he supported such an extension. Speaker of the House Bryce Edgmon said he supported an extension, too.

Kelly leads a Senate bloc with enough votes to extend. Edgmon’s House bloc doesn’t have enough votes. In the House, an extension vote requires the support of the Republican House Minority.

As late as May 15, House Minority Leader Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage, said the House Minority wants to see the Legislature settle upon a narrow agenda in exchange for its support of an extension. Without a focus on specific issues, the minority will not vote to extend.

That doesn’t mean an end, because there is a second option.

If the Legislature fails to act on its own, Gov. Bill Walker will call lawmakers into a special session, just as he has done the past two years.

Walker’s special session — limited to 30 days — will be restricted to an agenda that he sets. Lawmakers will be limited to debating and voting upon topics that he selects.

Furthermore, Walker could select a later start date for his special session, allowing the Legislature a brief break before resuming work. It is unclear if he would take that option or call the special session to begin May 18.

In a special session, lawmakers would have two parallel tasks at the top of their agenda.

The first would be deciding upon a budget for the coming fiscal year, which starts July 1.

The second would be deciding how to pay for that budget. Lawmakers appear convinced that the state can no longer simply use savings to close the deficit. They are considering a program to automatically draw a portion of the earnings of the Alaska Permanent Fund, and they are considering changes to the state’s subsidy of oil and gas drilling. An income tax is no longer on the table, but a special session could allow lawmakers time to consider another tax, such as the school tax suggested by Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks.

Even with an extension or special session, the Legislature — and every other Alaskan — faces two looming deadlines.

If a budget is not signed by June 1, each state employee will receive a written notice stating that he or she will be fired in 30 days.

If a budget is still not signed by July 1, state government will shut down, and those state employees will be laid off.

— James Brooks, Juneau Empire

Contact reporter James Brooks at [email protected] or call 419-7732.

05/17/2017 - 12:43pm