The Alaska Legislature is into the autumn of its 30-day special session and there seems to be little movement on the big pieces of legislation that should have been accomplished in the 90-day session, or even the 120-day session.
The regular extended session ended May 19. The first special session called by the governor this year ends on June 18.
Here’s what still hasn’t been done: There is no Operating Budget, the Mental Health Budget, the Capital Budget, the Permanent Fund Dividend. In other words, the funding of government for the year starting July 1 has not been decided since Jan. 19’s opening gavel.
That’s 139 days of legislating and no budgets to show for it. None.
It gets down to fighting over dollars, of course, but ultimately, it all hinges on what what Legislature plans to do with Alaskans’ Permanent Fund dividend this year.
The Permanent Fund dividend is a question that has vexed the Legislature since 2016, when Gov. Walker took half of the dividend and then proved, through a court decision, that it was merely an appropriation, not a royalty, as it had been envisioned by the Permanent Fund founders. Walker’s handling of the dividend was a major part of the public turning against him, as they also did against Sen. Cathy Giessel and Sen. John Coghill, and more than a few House members who didn’t solve the structural problem.
Appropriations are fought over year after year, and this year the fight looks more protracted than ever.
Here are some numbers to watch:
Zero: The amount the Alaska House of Representatives has appropriated for the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend. The House Majority tried for $500, but it was “no deal” from the Republican minority. They were not going to have a vote for a $500 dividend on their voting record.
$2,350: The amount the Alaska Senate has appropriated for the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend. This is roughly equal to the 50-50 split the governor has asked for in his constitutional amendment legislation, and he says he can live with that if the people can only be allowed to vote on SJR 6.
$1,000: The approximate amount that the dividend could be this year and not be in violation of the spending cap provided in SB 26, which creates a Percent of Market Value draw on the Earnings Reserve Account.
$81 billion: The balance of the Alaska Permanent Fund.
$18.3 billion: The amount in the Alaska Permanent Fund’s Earnings Reserve Account.
11: The number of Alaska State senators needed to agree to the Conference Committee compromise on the budgets and the dividend.
50-50: The governor’s proposal in SJR 6 to return to the formula that was historic, where half of a five-year rolling average of the fund’s annual investment income was dedicated to dividends for the people, and the rest could be used for government or reinvested into the principle.
That last number is key: If the Senate already had 11 senators in agreement, they’d have a deal struck, and the conference committee and rest of the Legislature would be heading home. But it’s apparent they don’t have 11 senators. There are those on both sides of the political fulcrum who want Alaskans to have a full PFD or at least a constitutional question on the ballot. And there are those who are philosophically opposed to the dividend altogether and want it as small as possible.
Conference Committee Chairs Sen. Bert Stedman and Rep. Neal Foster are trying to run out the clock a bit more and start the panic journalism machine going about government shutdowns, counting on the media to blame the governor and blame the Republicans for having no budget.
The conference committee also doesn’t want other legislators in Juneau, and most are, in fact, not there right now, since they would have to pay for their own room and board. The Legislature passed a law a couple of years ago saying if they don’t pass a budget, they can’t take per diem during special session.
It’s worth noting that those on the conference committee don’t need the legislative per diem — they are all pretty well off. They also don’t want all the other legislators in Juneau because idle hands get into mischief and bored legislators could make all sorts of trouble for leadership. Like a coup in the House, where Speaker Louise Stutes spends more time “at easing” than leading.
This week, there’s a meeting of the House Finance Committee. There’s a meeting of the House Judiciary Committee. And there is a clock ticking on all the functions of government:
- HB 69, Operating Budget
- HB 70 or SB 50: Capital Budget
- HB 71: Mental Health Budget
- HB 72, SB 52: Permanent Fund dividend
- HJR 7 or SJR 6: Governor’s proposal to ask voters to decide if Permanent Fund dividend should be in constitution.
- In other words, the only job the Legislature has, other than voting on gubernatorial appointments, is not done.
The leaders in the Legislature appear to want to kick the PFD can down the road to August, when there will be yet another special session. They don’t appear to want to give up 50 percent of the eligible earnings of the Permanent Fund, nor do they want Alaskans to be able to vote on it because they know how Alaskans will vote, if given the chance.
This puts Sen. Bert Stedman in an awkward position. After all, he was the one who proposed the 50-50 split in 2017 with SB 21, and it was then-Sen. Mike Dunleavy who supported his proposal and helped him move it.
Now Stedman has the chance to move his own proposal forward. Does Stedman have the courage to champion the 50-50 in 2021 as he did in 2017? Time will tell, but time is moving faster than ever with 11 days to go in the special session and three weeks until state government ceases to exist.