by Ceezar Martinson
The 31st Alaska Legislature, because it did not accomplish all of the big items on the agenda for this year, has been called into special session by Gov. Dunleavy. The major accomplishment right out of the gate was a bicameral conference committee that put together a deal for the repeal and replacement of SB 91. This is a major win for Gov. Dunleavy and is also a testament to the members of the conference committee who sat down and, despite differences with regard to criminal justice policy, made a deal come together. Aside from this action at the beginning of the special session, the Legislature still has to come up with a path forward on the PFD and the budget. Despite the disagreements that exist between the House and Senate on the budget and the PFD, here are my thoughts on the actions the Legislature will take in the next few weeks: When it comes to the budget, there is already a conference committee that has been established to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate versions of the operating budget. Senator Bert Stedman and Rep. Neal Foster are the leaders on that conference committee, and because of their experience and personalities will be able to bring together a deal in the committee.
Most likely that deal will consist of keeping in place the budget reductions that were made in the House Finance Committee. House Finance did greater budget reductions than the Senate and the reductions that were made were surgical. For those reasons I do not see any deal coming together that fundamentally alters those reductions. As for funding the PFD, I believe that the conference committee will come out with a good-sized dividend; it may not be the $3,000 amount the Senate version started with, but I could see the conference committee doing a $2,000 dividend as a compromise number. As for the other elements of the budget that the governor has placed on the special session call, I think those areas of the budget will have broad bipartisan agreement. The capital budget is going to be a small one this year as the state is still dealing with fiscal problems. The Alaska Mental Health Trust budget will be handled fairly well, because it is an organization whose work is viewed by many members of the House and Senate as critical to tackling the scourge of drug addiction in the state. In terms of the education budget, there is both bicameral and bipartisan agreement that the Legislature has the right to fully fund education. I expect that those provisions in the budget will remain in place. The Dunleavy Administration has taken the position that the Legislature does not have the constitutional authority to do this. The Legislative Legal Department has stated that the Legislature does in fact have the authority to do it. The Legislature is going to go with their legal counsel, and this will set up a showdown with the administration. If the governor vetoes the forward funding in the budget for education it will be a serious political miscalculation on his part. If he does the vetoes during the special session, I could see both chambers coming together and overriding his vetoes, and there is also the factor that the public response will be against the administration. If there is a court case brought by the administration to the Alaska Supreme Court on the forward funding, I believe that the Legislature stands a good chance of winning, as the state constitution gives the Legislature the power of appropriation.
Aside from that, the Legislature has a long-standing practice of forward-funding education. Either way, the Legislature may very well accomplish the big lifts it needs to make before the 30 deadline.
Ceezar Martinson is a lifelong resident of Downtown Anchorage and in 2018 was the Republican Primary winner for the District 20 Legislative seat and was on Sen. Mike Shower’s (R-Wasilla) staff for the 2019 legislative season.