After weekend moves on budget, legislative session continues on

Here’s what lawmakers did over the past two days: They passed a bill advancing an interior energy project, and another dealing with worker’s comp. They also held a late-night meeting that appeared to move the Republican majorities in the House and Senate closer to a budget deal.

Photo by Skip Gray/360 North

Here’s what they did not do: Gavel out.

SEN. KEVIN MEYER:Mr. Majority Leader?
SEN. JOHN COGHILL: Mr. President, I move that the Senate adjourn until Monday the 27th at 10 a.m.

Despite speculation that the Legislature could wrap up this weekend, the hopes of many Capitol workers were dashed on Sunday afternoon when Senate President Kevin Meyer told his side to be back to work the next day — the 98th day of the 90 day legislative session.

A sense of anticipation had set in, after a conference committee had met at 9 p.m. on Saturday night to resolve the points of disagreement between the House and Senate budgets.

Their agreement uses various pots of money to cover the state’s multi-billion-dollar deficit, instead of tapping the state’s Constitutional Budget Reserve. Legislators need a three-quarter vote to access that $10 billion rainy day account, and the House’s Democratic Minority has made their support conditional on increased education funding and Medicaid expansion.

Sen. Anna MacKinnon, an Eagle River Republican, said at the meeting that the House and Senate majorities were now seriously considering moving ahead without attempting to access the budget reserve.

“We’re waiting to hear from the administration on what happens if there’s no three-quarter vote,” said MacKinnon. “So, as I understand it, the majority has made an attempt to get a three-quarter vote and not been successful to date. And so, we’ve left it to the administration to define to the Legislature, specifically Senate Finance’s request to understand how they will access those funds in what manner, and in what order.”

Their budget plugs the revenue shortfall by stopping the forward funding of education, a one-time fix that frees up more than $1 billion for the next fiscal year.

Sen. Pete Kelly, a Fairbanks Republican, suggested that forward-funding process could come back for schools if House Democrats reconsidered their position on the budget reserve vote.

“One of the reasons we couldn’t get the money is because we don’t have a three-quarter vote,” said Kelly. “That might be something on the list of the three-quarter vote to the minority so that we could forward fund education.”

Their plan also claws back $157 million that had been designated for work on a natural gas megaproject — money that would otherwise be available to the governor for his studies of an alternative gasline.

Some of the conference committee changes made on Saturday night were in line with House Democrats’ requests — some funding for public broadcasting was restored, and a nearly $50 million cut to classroom formula funding made by the Senate was shrunk down to a third of that number.

But Rep. Les Gara, an Anchorage Democrat, said the education cuts were still too much.

“This $16.4 million reduction on top of the $32 million that’s already been reduced is over a $48 million reduction in funding for our public schools,” said Gara. “I think that’s a devastating amount of funding cuts. And I totally understand that we’re in a fiscal crisis, but there are smarter ways to get around it.”

Gara also said he opposed language in the budget meant to prevent Gov. Bill Walker from unilaterally accepting Medicaid expansion.

The governor has said he plans to call lawmakers into a special session if they fail to expand Medicaid, and his office has expressed support for passing a fully funded budget.

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