Legislature’s chambers part ways as special session fizzles out

The Alaska House of Representatives met for only a few minutes on Monday, November 13, 2017, with only 15 of 40 members present, only to adjourn until the following Friday. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)
The Alaska House of Representatives met for only a few minutes Monday, with only 15 of 40 members present, only to adjourn until Friday. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

The two chambers of the Legislature are far apart, both on policy and on how to end the special session.

The Alaska House met for a technical session Monday in Juneau, but the Senate has adjourned, with members returning to their homes.

The impasse is a result of the two chambers having different views on the two bills on the special session agenda.

The Senate majority wanted to address a bill revising criminal sentencing as quickly as possible. And Senate leaders say now isn’t the time to consider a tax bill, which is the other measure that Gov. Bill Walker included in the special session call.

The House majority wanted to spend time on both bills, and was hoping to pass the tax ahead of next year’s session.

They felt some urgency because next year is an election year.

The House passed its own version of the sentencing bill, and expected to resolve differences with the Senate in a conference committee.

Instead, the Senate voted to concur with the House version, and adjourned sine die — a Latin term for having no fixed day to resume — on Friday.

By adjourning, the Senate made a statement that it didn’t want to spend any more time in Juneau, which would open the door to working on the tax bill.

But each chamber doesn’t have complete control over when it adjourns.

The Alaska Constitution says that neither chamber can adjourn for more than three days without the agreement of the other side.

So the Senate and the House could continue to hold technical sessions until the scheduled last day of the session, which is Nov. 21.

House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, a Dillingham Democrat, said he hopes the Senate will change its mind.

Edgmon said the first thing he’d like to do is fix a provision of the criminal sentencing bill, Senate Bill 54.

That provision may unconstitutionally require people who commit class C felonies for the first time have the same penalties as those who commit more serious class B felonies.

“We can certainly get the House back into action and take any major action should the Senate all of a sudden decide that they want to come back and fix that C felony provision of Senate Bill 54,” Edgmon said. “If the Senate wanted to work on the fiscal plan, we would be more than willing to jump right back in on that as well.”

For his part, Senate President Pete Kelly, a Fairbanks Republican, said the Senate was open to fixing Senate Bill 54 on Friday, but the House didn’t have enough members to act. So the Senate adjourned.

Kelly said he was concerned that if the Senate stayed longer, the House would have tried to use the rest of the session to push for the tax bill.

“I think it was the plan actually all along for them to drag us into a conference committee and then, as happened during the regular session and the other special sessions, delay and delay and delay, trying to get us to say yes to taxes,” Kelly said. “And we’re just not going to do it.”

The only committee meeting scheduled for Monday, for the House Finance Committee, was canceled.

Andrew Kitchenman

State Government Reporter, Alaska Public Media & KTOO

State government plays an outsized role in the life of Alaskans. As the state continues to go through the painful process of deciding what its priorities are, I bring Alaskans to the scene of a government in transition.

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