House Democrats: Budget will get ‘lounge’ review

Rep. David Guttenberg, member of House Democratic Majority

Last week, House Majority Finance Co-chair Paul Seaton, a Musk Ox Republican out of Homer, issued an eight-page memo describing how the new Democrat-controlled Finance review process would work. Seaton has kept his Republican veneer but has joined the Democrat majority.

Instead of subcommittees from the House Finance Committee executing the first deep dive into departmental budgets, those budget reviews will now be part of the existing House standing committees that are tasked with hearing, amending, and voting on policy and legislative bills that are referred to their committees.

The standing committees are intended for policy and law. That’s why the Finance Committee has always structured the budget review through its own subcommittees: They keep their focus on the numbers.

A structural problem arises with the Seaton process: Policy committee chairs cannot also be Finance subcommittee chairs. Seaton overcomes this by placing one Democrat Finance Committee member into each policy committee, and that person leads the discussion and decision making on budgets referred to that committee.

Clear as mud?

That’s the way it looked during the first meeting of the House Resources Committee this week.

Rep. David Guttenberg, a Democrat from Fairbanks, is the Finance member placed into House Resources for the purpose of taking over as defacto chair when it comes to the budget.

The House Resources Committee has a full plate of policy, what with examining oil and gas tax credits, and the expressed desire of the Democratic co-chairs to give the current, voter-approved oil tax structure, Senate Bill 21, a thorough whipping.

Guttenberg described the process of how to work financial deep dives into the standing committees as evolving.

“Each person who chairs a subcommittee has different answers,” he said.

As for his role, Guttenberg made it clear he would not be cutting any more state jobs nor looking to curtail travel, and he planned to issue a “narrative report” to the Finance Committee that will be reached through a  “consensus process” on the budget process, without taking a vote.

Republican members of the House Natural Resources Committee and observers were somewhat stunned that Republicans will be asked to join a consensus on the budget, rather than being allowed to vote. Most Republicans want to continue to trim the budget and won’t want to be placed in a position counter to the will of their own district.

When Republican members of House Resources asked how consensus would be achieved, Guttenberg said there would be conversations in the hallways and the legislative lounge.

We are not making this up.

It also appears that no amendments to the budget can be made in the subcommittee/policy committee; all budget amendments must be forwarded to Rep. Seaton through a yet-to-be-launched limited access database, similar to one  used for the capital budget (known as CAPSIS)

Rep. Chris Tuck of Anchorage said this process will provide more transparency because the policy committees are televised and will be held during working hours.

But the previous process was audio available and the evening and weekend budget reviews allowed working Alaskans at least equivalent access.

House Republican members of the Finance Committee have been placed on about half of the policy committees. Democrats are firmly in control right now of the House review of the state budget.

This “still evolving” process promises to be less than transparent.

Given that Guttenberg has already stated publicly that he has no interest in further cuts to personnel, travel, or anything else, the Democrats’ budget review may be more of a rubber stamp for the Governor’s budget proposal.