Alaska Legislature misses deadline to gavel out

Sen. Dennis Egan makes a break for fresh air out the rear exit of the Alaska Senate Chambers at around 12:20am, April 21, 2014. Although the 28th Legislature was, by statute, supposed to end at midnight, the Senate continued conducting business until 4:05am and then adjourned until 1pm the same day. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

Sen. Dennis Egan makes a break for fresh air out the rear exit of the Alaska Senate Chambers at around 12:20am, April 21, 2014. Although the 28th Legislature was, by statute, supposed to end at midnight, the Senate continued conducting business until 4:05am and then adjourned until 1pm the same day. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

All session, legislative leadership has promised to gavel out early, to be home in time for the Easter holiday. That didn’t happen. In fact, the Legislature did not gavel out at all. With the House and Senate struggling to make a deal on education, lawmakers are forced into extra innings.

By 1 a.m., the second floor of the state capitol had erupted into chaos. The Legislature had blown its midnight deadline, with the capital budget still in committee and debate yet to begin on a sprawling education bill.

The halls were crowded with lobbyists trading gossip, staffers pumping out amendments from copy machines, and dozens of advocates chanting and beating drums after the Native languages bill they were supporting had been held up in the political crossfire.

Unless you were part of the Republican leadership team huddled in a closed-door strategy meeting, you were left guessing as to what was going to happen and when you were going to leave the building.

And that applies to lawmakers, too, like Democratic Reps. Chris Tuck and Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins.

“Tonight? Well, tonight’s over, you know that? It’s morning. Depends on how many people speak under special orders.” *laughs* “That’s what you call 1 a.m. humor.”

When political leadership finally did emerge, details were scarce.

Gov. Sean Parnell’s omnibus education bill had blown up because of a disagreement over education funding. The House had put extra money – about $75 million per year —  into the base student allocation, which enshrines it in the formula. The Senate’s version increased the number to $100 million. But the boost comes outside the BSA and is only guaranteed it for three years, which has disappointed education advocates.

When Senate President Charlie Huggins emerged from the meeting, he ran straight to the bathroom before reporters could surround him. And when he emerged, details on the education plan were scarce.

“What’s the problem? Why are you guys hung up so much?” “There is no problem.” “Well, it’s past midnight. You’re not done. You were going to get done 48 hours ago, Mr. President.” “Well, we’re waiting on the House. As soon as we get them lined up, we’ll be ready to go.”

Nobody got ready enough. The House and Senate stayed in session until dawn, tending to the logjam of bills that had built up during the stalemate between the two bodies.

The House passed a popular crime reform bill, a bill that would allow a $250 million power plant at the University Alaska Fairbanks, and a bill that would seal criminal records that did not result in a guilty verdict. The Senate passed a measure requiring more public information on state regulations, and legislation to extend the senior benefits program.

But the education issue remained unresolved. Finally, at 4 a.m., the Senate decided it was time for everyone to go home. Senate Rules Chair Lesil McGuire said it just made more sense to give people some rest before debating one of the session’s priority bills.

“The concern that we had was it’s not good decision making when people are tired. And we have older members energy levels, and you can just kind of see people’s energy level lowering, and you’re not as sharp as you would be.”

Lawmakers will be coming back in the afternoon, on this 91st day of the legislative session, to take up the education bill again.

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