House Leadership Clears Decks for Budget-Only Focus

Rules Suspension Puts Fiscal Matters on all Burners

 

Medium Grind -- Just the News

PUBLISHER'S NOTE: This article has been corrected to reflect that it was Rep. Neal Foster, not Dan Saddler who was excused from the floor. Rep. Saddler was present and accounted for and voted "yes."

In a move that was both symbolic and substantive yesterday the Alaska House majority introduced and passed a concurrent resolution to suspend the uniform rules and essentially tell themselves to get to work on the budget, and only the budget.

House Concurrent Resolution 23 allows the House speaker to instruct committee chairs to schedule hearings only for bills related to the budget and to solving the state’s current fiscal challenges. It also places the Alaska House of Representatives into what is known as the Twenty-Four Hour Rule – meaning that the normal five-day public notice requirement for bill hearings is waived and only 24 hours notice is required. Normally the Twenty-Four-Hour Rule is automatically invoked once the operating budget goes to conference committee, which generally happens much later in the legislative session. The normal process is for the House to send an operating budget to the Senate where it is changes. The House normally fails to concur with the Senate changes and both bodies assign members to a conference committee where the differences are hammered out. At that time all legislation falls under the 24-hour rule. However, because House leadership has suspended action on personal legislation, only fiscal bills will be subject to the 24 hour rule at this time, with only a few exceptions.

The rules suspensions are in effect only until the House has passed its version of the operating budget over to the Senate, then business will return to some semblance of normal in the house.

The move is symbolic in that committee chairs could just as easily have volunteered to postpone hearings on personal legislation until the operating budget and other fiscal bills have been passed, but it is substantive in that it suspends the five-day notice requirement. That provision didn’t sit well with many House minority members who stood to voice concerns that the public may not have time to track bills and participate in public comment. Majority chairs and leadership said the 24-hour rule is needed to expedite the budget process, but that they are committed to giving more than one day’s notice as much as possible. The rule will also allow schedule changes for budget and fiscal-related bills this week, rather than having to schedule those hearings for next week. In the end, the resolution passed nearly unanimously with minority Democrat Rep. Andy Josephson of Anchorage as the only “no” vote, and majority member Rep. Neal Foster (R-Nome) excused from the floor.

House Speaker Mike Chenault (R-Nikiski) said he hoped the move would send a strong message that legislators have heard public concerns and that the House is focused on what is clearly the public’s top priority this session.

“It kind of makes it official that we feel the most important thing we can address here is the budget,” Chenault said. “The earlier we can get a consensus on the budget between the majority and the minority on what the moving pieces are, the sooner we can come to a conclusion with the budget and move on to other things.”

Chenault said he is keenly focused on not repeating the train wreck of last session when negotiations between the House majority, minority and with Gov. Bill Walker’s administration bogged down, forcing multiple special sessions before an agreement could be reached.

The same specter that derailed the budget process last session looms again this year. Because state revenues are billions of dollars short of a balanced budget, the legislature will have to dip into savings to keep the government’s lights lit. Normally the first pot of savings used is the Constitutional Budget Reserve, and in most years a CBR draw requires a three-quarters vote in each house. Last year the Senate, with a 15-member majority in a 20-member body was able to approve a CBR draw without help from minority Democrats. The House majority however has only 27 members and so must peel off at least three minority members to draw on the CBR. The House minority, under the leadership of Rep. Chris Tuck (D-Anchorage) held firm for several concessions delaying a budget far into the interim. In the end both sides reached a compromise to avoid a government shutdown.

Rep. Tuck declined to comment. Democratic spokesman Mike Mason said he doesn’t work with non-credentialed reporters, and that his members don’t interview with bloggers. Grinder News hopes to find a solution to that hiccup soon so House minority leadership can provide its own perspective and context.

Senate Minority Leader Berta Gardner (D-Anchorage) did speak with Grinder News however. Gardner said, “I think it was a very clever move on their part, but it’s bogus. It’s meaningless. Rule 54 (the suspension rule) that they’re suspending explicitly says you have to have a two-thirds vote in each body. It was never discussed with the Senate, and [the House doesn’t] necessarily have two-thirds themselves.”

Each body regularly suspends uniform rules independently though, and House members could have made daily motions to temporarily suspend rules. This approach simply formalizes the process, and allows the body to remain in the 24-hour rule until an operating budget is passed to the Senate. The Senate does not need to follow suit for the House to operate under its own rules. There doesn’t appear to be much frustration from Senate majority leadership, and the prospect of potentially getting a budget sooner, and cleaner, is likely a relief.

In terms of what that budget might look like, both Speaker Chenault and House Majority Leader Rep. Charisse Millett (R-Anchorage) said the full fiscal package will have to include cuts, but will also likely include some combination of revenue provisions.

Chenault said his caucus doesn’t have a consensus about what the fiscal plan should look like, but that “most people understand we need to address revenue as well as cuts.”

“I’ve told my caucus that I don’t think we can sit here and do nothing,” Chenault said. “Doing nothing is not and option. There will probably be a combination of things.” Chenault said his caucus members range the entire philosophical spectrum. “I have people that say, ‘don’t institute any revenue’ to those who say, ‘Hey, we have to do all of this’ and everywhere in between.” The trick is in finding 30 House members to agree.

Millett agreed that it’s time to at least get the conversation started on what state operations and budgets will look like in the future.

“This is the time to have the conversation,” Millett said. “I’m not sure we’ll get all the way there this year, but just having the conversation about how we’ve relied on oil revenue as 90 percent of our budget for so long that we now see the failings, especially with low production.” Millett said the legislature has to work with the administration to find a balance in how oil royalties and taxes relate to the state’s budget. “I think we’ve heard from the public that’s what they want us to do.”

When Grinder News suggested that the nearly unanimous talk of needed cuts might be for political cover Millett said, “I don’t think it’s about political cover. I think before we reach into the pocketbooks of Alaskans we have to make sure we’re not asking them to pay for fat in the budget. I think that’s reasonable.”

Millett admitted there’s not a lot of fat left in agency operations, but she pointed to other opportunities for cuts through efficiency. She said things like the current discussion about prison reform and a better way to organize the state’s university system are good examples of where efficiencies can be found.

Chenault was not ready to put a hard figure on cuts vs. revenue, and also said it doesn’t all have to be done this year, but he said somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 million to $750 million in cuts would suit him. To achieve those levels some revision to the state’s oil and gas credits system would have to be part of the equation. Chenault would not specify a revenue amount but said there are a lot of options available, including taxes and the Permanent Fund Earnings Reserve. He said his least favorite option would be an income tax.

“We haven’t put the plan together yet, but as much as I dislike taking money out of Alaskan’s pockets you can only cut so much out of the budget,” Chenault said. “If we want to provide services to Alaskans, unfortunately we may have to step up to the plate and do that.”

With few distractions left in the House after the rules suspensions, members will have an opportunity to step up to that plate repeatedly for the next three or four weeks.