Alaska Legislature passes budget and some bills that resemble turduckens

The Alaska State Capitol in Juneau hosts budget negotiations on a rainy day, April 15, 2021. (Photo by Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO and Alaska Public Media)
The Alaska State Capitol in Juneau on a rainy day, April 15, 2021. (Photo by Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO and Alaska Public Media)

The Alaska Legislature passed a budget late Wednesday night that includes a $3,200 payout to Alaskans in the form of Permanent Fund Dividends and energy relief payments.

That’s a compromise, after the state Senate had earlier sought $5,500 payments. House members argued that would draw too much from state savings.

The budget is still one of the largest in state history, and it’s just one piece of legislation that passed in a flurry of activity right at the end of the legislative session. All of it, of course, must still survive Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s veto pen to become law.

Alaska Beacon reporter James Brooks was up late following the Legislature’s frantic scramble to pass bills before the deadline.

In some cases, he says, that meant bills were amended into other bills to get them passed. Brooks compares that to a turducken, a three-bird roast that involves stuffing a chicken into a duck and stuffing that into a turkey.

Listen:

The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

James Brooks: For example, there was a bill that involved changing signature requirements on vehicle titles. Well, another bill got shoved inside it that requires only one license plate instead of two. So you’ll only need your rear license plate instead of a rear and front license plate.

Casey Grove: So kind of a mad dash to the finish. And all at the last second, it gets shoved together and passed to make it across the finish line. Of course, the biggest thing that we’ve been watching is the budget, which includes the Permanent Fund dividend for this year and an energy relief payment. What happened with that? And I guess, also, how close did we get to a $5,500 payment this year?

James Brooks: Right, $5,500 seemed like it was a possibility as late as Saturday. But on that day, the house turned down the Senate proposal that contained the $5,500. That left the House with one version of the budget, the Senate with another version of the budget, and forced them to negotiate a compromise. What that compromise group came up with was $3,850 — a $2,600 PFD and about a $1,200 energy rebate. But that’s not what ended up happening, because that compromise was dependent on some of the energy relief money getting paid out of savings. And the House fell one vote short of spending from savings in order to pay for that. So the end result is about $3,200. By any measure, it’s one of the largest payouts in state history, even when adjusted for inflation. But for a lot of legislators, it was a disappointment because it could have been higher and was discussed as being higher.

Casey Grove: What was the reasoning for the folks in the House that voted against spending from the Constitutional Budget Reserve, that savings account you mentioned? What did they say about their votes against that?

James Brooks: It’s concerns about the future. For the past few years, while oil prices have been low, the state has blazed through almost $16 billion in savings. And so the state savings accounts are at a really low ebb right now. The state’s expecting a lot of money from high oil prices, and thus high oil taxes, caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But it’s not certain at this point. And so there have been a fair number of legislators who are worried about the idea of spending from savings. And their concern is making sure that there’s enough money and savings to cover unforeseen circumstances, even if it comes at the cost of the short-term payout.

Casey Grove: Now, for the folks that voted for a higher payout, what was the reasoning there? I mean, that’s tied to these high energy prices that we’re seeing right now, right?

James Brooks: Exactly. We’re starting to see the annual fuel barges arrive in remote villages, and looking at gasoline prices at, say, $16 a gallon. And it’s reflected across the state, not just in those villages. Costs of food are going up. Costs of fuel are going up. And legislators really wanted to respond to that. And to some degree they have, but not as much as other legislators wanted.

Casey Grove: Well, like we said, it was kind of a mad dash to the finish, and the budget was just one part of that. What else got passed last night by the Legislature?

James Brooks: One of the big accomplishments that did pass was an omnibus education bill targeted to making sure that every Alaska student can read by the 3rd grade. The idea is that by spending more effort and money on early education, you improve outcomes for kids later on. Otherwise, there was a pretty significant revision of the state’s sexual assault laws, to make it reliant on consent, not just violence or the threat of violence. There’s a bill limiting child marriages in the state. Right now, existing law says somebody as young as 14 can get married with the approval of a judge. The bill raises that age to 16 and says that if you’re a 16- or 17-year-old, you still need a judge’s approval, and you can only get married to somebody who’s within three years of your own age.

Casey Grove: There were some things that didn’t pass, and I guess one of those was a campaign finance bill. Tell me about that.

James Brooks: Yeah, earlier this year a federal judge, actually a series of them, ruled that the limits on how much you can donate to a political candidate were illegal and threw them out. The Legislature needed to impose new limits, if there’s going to be any kind of restriction on how much somebody can donate to a candidate. In the last hours of the Legislature, that bill failed. So right now, and going into this fall’s election, there’s no limit on how much money someone can donate to a candidate. It remains to be seen how much effect that will have on this year’s election, but I think it will be significant. And connected to that, the governor and Republican legislators, plus some Democrats, wanted to have more security measures in place for elections in the future. That bill also didn’t pass. That was one of those turduckens. They were trying to merge campaign finance and election security, but both bills died.

Alaska Public Media

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