The Legislature was in its 53rd day on Friday, well past the halfway mark on the statutory 90th-day limit to the session and more than a third of the way to the constitutional limit of 120 days.
Lawmakers have routinely ignored the 90-day limit, approximately mid-April, in recent years, but the 120-day limit in mid-May is a hard deadline, required by the constitution.
Unless the Legislature extends the session, and there are provisions for short extensions, the House and Senate can no longer pass bills or do any other business.
However, while its start has been slowed by the 30-day delay in the House organization, both that body and the Senate are picking up the pace in budget work and legislation.
The work on budgets and bills, made humdrum this year because of lack of money, was enlivened last week by the drama over Sen. Lora Reinbold’s spat with Gov. Mike Dunleavy over COVID-19 health measures and by Reinbold’s refusal to wear a face mask in the Capitol building in defiance of the Legislature’s rules.
Meanwhile, the Senate Finance Committee’s subcommittees on the operating budget have mostly finished their reviews of agency budgets, committee cochair Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, said last week. The full finance committee will not take up subcommittee recommendations until the House Finance committee catches up.
Traditionally the House sends its version of an operating budget to the Senate first, and that is now expected in late March. After that the Senate includes its agency recommendations and a revised version goes back to the House, which typically happens in mid-to-late April. Differences are worked out in a House-Senate budget conference committee usually in early May prior to the required 120-day deadline.
The same process is followed with the capital, or construction budget, except that it originates in the Senate and goes to the House, which then sends back a bill with its changes.
Stedman also said not to expect many changes from what Gov. Mike Dunleavy proposed in his budget released in mid-December.
State revenues are scarce, and both the operating and capital budgets are bare-bones, and what the governor proposed is pretty much just enough to keep state government functioning. There basically isn’t money for new state programs unless they are urgent, and legislators can somehow scrape up the money.
One new program considered urgent enough, however, is a new initiative to teach reading in lower elementary school grades 1 through 4, or even beyond, and also to establish a statewide pre-kindergarten program that will allow young children to start school ready to learn literacy and math skills.
Alaska children score the lowest in the nation in early reading skills and last year Gov. Mike Dunleavy made it a priority to change that. The legislation, which last year focused on early reading, did not pass when the 2020 legislation session ended early because of COVID-19. This year Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, the Senate Minority Leader, and Sen. Shelly Hughes, R-MatSu, the Senate Majority Leader, are supporting new versions of the legislation.
The structure of the bill is still being worked out but it is likely to contain support for school districts for early reading and mathematics teaching along with support for pre-K.
Many school districts around the state have pre-K or versions of it like Head Start, but the new legislation would establish a statewide framework and would include money to districts to support that.
How much money is yet to be determined as well as other issues, such as requirements that certified teachers with training in reading instruction be employed in pre-K and that elementary school teachers have the benefit of special training in reading instruction.
Another bill pending is legislation to extend the COVID-19 health emergency declaration that expired Feb. 13. The Senate was actively working on the extension but the delay in House organization until Feb. 19 meant that no bill could be enacted before the end of the emergency declaration.
The governor was asked to order an administrative extension, but he declined to do so arguing that he lacked the authority to do it while the Legislature was in session. The expiration of the emergency order has created problems for health care providers who needed waivers from federal rules to respond more effectively to the COVIFD-19 outbreak.
Those were made possible with an official state emergency declaration but were lost when it expired.
The issue has become politically sensitive due to resistance from conservative groups who believed, incorrectly, that the emergency declaration contributed to business shutdowns and mandates for mask wearing. The governor has explained that limits on local activity and mask wearing are mainly municipal, not state, matters, but Sen. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, has kept the issue in a high profile.
That caused the legislative extension to go on a slower track in Juneau. Things have picked up, however. Last week the House Health and Social Services Committee passed House Bill 76, extending the declaration, to the House Finance Committee, putting the bill at an at advanced stage of passage in that body.
Meanwhile, Reinbold herself has become an issue in the Legislature, in the feud with the governor over the state’s COVID-19 response and now with her Republican colleagues in the Senate over a refusal to wear a face mask in the capitol building.
Reinbold’s criticism of the state health emergency response led to a testy letter from the governor who argued that the senator’s comments were undercutting public confidence in the state response.
Dunleavy said he would no longer allow state administration officials to appear in the Judiciary committee to speak on legislation. Reinbold replied a days later in an equally testy response.
Most recently, the senator’s refusal to wear a face mask in the capitol led to her being asked to leave a House committee meeting by the Speaker of the House, Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak.
That was followed in an unusual vote in the Senate that reaffirmed the rule requiring wearing of a face mask on the Senate floor. The led Reinbold, who again refused to wear a mask, to leave the floor, asking to be excused from voting.
The vote in the 20-member Senate was 18 to 1 with Sen. Mike Shower, R-Mat-Su, voting no, and Reinbold excused. Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Mat-Su, initially voted no but changed her vote to yes.
The standoff with Reinbold and the Senate Majority, led by Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Kenai, has created a problem because with Reinbold refusing to wear a mask in chairing the Judiciary Committee and Dunleavy refusing to allow administration people to appear, the panel is impaired in its ability to operate.
Judiciary is one of the most important committees in the Legislature, and all legislation relating to the courts and criminal justice must go through the committee. So do constitutional amendments, and ironically the key parts of the governor’s legislative priorities, constitutional amendments on the Permanent Fund and Permanent Fund Dividend, are now in that committee.
Until there’s some resolution to the standoff, those measures are stalled.