Senate Democrats stage walk out rather than vote on spending cap

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Senate Democrats tried to weaken a key spending cap bill that was up for a vote on Friday, and when that didn’t work, they resorted to the old Abbie Hoffman tactic: They walked out.

After an hour and 15 minutes and 12 opposing amendments, many of which were ruled “not germane” by Senate President Pete Kelly, Democrats had had enough.

Democrat minority leader Berta Gardner threw down the gauntlet and headed for the door after saying, “Just because the chair says something is so, and the caucus members are obligated to follow their leader, does not make it so, and Mr. Chair, we protest those rulings about things not being germane,” she said.

She then picked up her notebook and headed for the door, followed by Sens. Tom Begich, Bill Wielechowski, Dennis Egan, and Donny Olson.

By staging a walk out, the Democrats avoided putting themselves on the record in a vote against a spending cap.

Democrats Sens. Berta Gardner, Tom Begich, Bill Wielechowski, and Denis Egan head for the door of the Senate in protest of a spending cap bill.

The walk out can be seen at the 1:16 mark on this video from 360 North.

Senate Democrats quickly issued a press release explaining their frustration and brought up old grievances about other measures they have offered that gained no traction in the Republican-led body.

SB 196 was sponsored by the Senate Finance Committee. It caps unrestricted general fund spending at $4.1 billion.

“Alaska must control its spending in order to refill our savings accounts and sustain constitutionally required programs Alaskans rely on in their everyday lives,” said Senate Majority Leader Peter Micciche of Soldotna in a statement. “Senate Bill 196 will help constrain the growth of government, so in the future we don’t find ourselves in the same difficult fiscal situation we face today.”

The spending limit is a priority for the Senate Majority but must pass the Democrat-led majority in the House.

Last year, the Senate passed a spending cap that also put protections in place for the Permanent Fund Earnings Reserve Account. That was rejected by the Democrat-led House. This year, the spending cap is going over to the House as a standalone bill to simplify negotiations, the Senate said in a press release.

“Had we had an effective spending cap in place during the fiscal years of 2006 through 2014, we would have about $15 billion in our Constitutional Budget Reserve right now,” said Sen. Natasha von Imhof of Anchorage. “A spending cap could give the Legislature the discipline it needs to keep state spending at a reasonable level from one year to the next.”

The Constitutional Budget Reserve is now $2.58 billion, likely not enough to patch the gap between spending and revenues this year.

To promote transparency, SB 196 requires the governor to submit a report with the budget, comparing the governor’s spending proposal with the spending limit. The spending limit adjusts over time to reflect changes in inflation.

“SB 196 plants a seed for a future tree of fiscal sustainability for Alaskans. Had the Legislature passed this bill 15 years ago, we would have billions more in savings, new taxes would not be a primary objective for the current House Majority, and it’s unlikely the governor would have cut Permanent Fund dividends.” – Sen. Peter Micciche

The limit does not apply to appropriations to the Alaska Permanent Fund, payments for Permanent Fund dividends, required spending for state debt obligations, capital projects, or to meet a state of disaster declared by the governor as prescribed by law. The bill also has a three year “look back” provision to evaluate how the limit is working.

SB 196 passed the Senate by a vote of 13-0 after the Democrats went AWOL.