Alaska’s Legislature has convened, and a big question is: Will they be able to agree on a budget? Lawmakers had a difficult time with that last year, resulting in multiple special sessions and a lot of uncertainty.
With help from other CoastAlaska member stations, we bring you this report on what Southeast lawmakers think about how the Legislature is functioning, and whether that can or will improve.
“I think it’s functioning just about how our forefathers anticipated,” said Sen. Bert Stedman, a Sitka Republican.
He said that with different parties in control of the House and Senate, and an independent governor in the middle, the result is a lot of dialogue but not much movement.
He also said that the House Majority is a group of mostly Democrats, and they’re still learning how to run their house.
“I think they figured out playing dictator doesn’t work,” he said. “You can try it, but it just doesn’t work. Doesn’t work when the Senate does it to the House or the House does it to the Senate.”
Juneau Democrat Rep. Sam Kito, though, has another take on what caused delays. He said the Senate has been behaving like a full-time Legislature, with hopes of waiting out the House.
“We’re not functioning as well as I’d like to see,” he said. “If you ask for my personal opinion, I do believe it’s because the rhetoric from the Senate that they will not consider anything called or considered a tax.”
And how to balance the budget with a huge revenue shortfall was one of the big sticking points last year.
But, Kito doesn’t agree with proposals to withhold lawmakers’ per diem if they can’t approve a budget in time. He said many legislators, including himself, can’t afford a hotel room and meals out of pocket during a special session. Stedman also opposes that initiative, arguing that people need to be paid for their time.
Rep Dan Ortiz, though, supports the idea. The Ketchikan independent thinks the initiative, if approved by voters, would improve the Legislature’s functionality.
Ortiz has gone through three state budget cycles since he was first elected to the House. This year’s will be his fourth.
“And they’ve always been challenging,” he said. “We went extra time each of those years, even when there was a Republican controlled House and Senate in those two years where I was part of the minority.”
The reason they’re so challenging is the issues are huge. The state is now operating with more than 70 percent less revenue.
“The issues are tougher issues than the days when there was lots of money around,” he said. “That’s probably what I think has contributed to the appearance of more disharmony. It’s that issue more than anything else.”
Ortiz is hopeful, though, that the two bodies will work better together this year and find more ways to compromise.
Juneau Democratic Sen. Dennis Egan said the Legislature functioned better years ago, when there was a bipartisan working group in the Senate.
“We worked together, Republicans and Democrats, and an independent,” he said. “But we got things done. Lately, I don’t like it. I mean I don’t like the way it’s been functioning.”
Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins is a Sitka Democrat. He said it’s easy to say that the Legislature has been performing poorly. But,
“There are two components of the Legislature, and to say the Legislature is performing poorly is a generalization,” he said. “Specifically, the House has passed a fully funded fiscal plan that would balance the budget and the Senate would not.”
And why is that?
“The Senate is allergic to revenue,” Kreiss-Tomkins said.
So, can relations be improved?
Kreiss-Tomkins said the relationships are fine; it’s a philosophical divide. Compromise is the answer, and he said that is happening to a degree, but not enough to solve the underlying problem.
Juneau Rep. Justin Parish, a Democrat, said he ran on a platform that the Legislature is broken.
“And it breaks my heart to say, that’s still the case,” he said.
It takes a toll on the whole state, he said, that the Legislature hasn’t figured out how to compromise.
Parish gave an example of oil tax reform as compromise that worked — kind of. He said he wanted more reform than the Senate agreed to, but the overall result was acceptable.
A proposed education tax is an example of failure to compromise, Parish said. The House sent a proposal to the Senate last year.
“I believe they just had one public hearing on it, in which the support was primarily positive. Most people who called in supported it,” he said. “And then they waved it out of committee, canceled all future hearings and gave it a summary execution on the (Senate) floor.”
Parish said he supports the initiative that would compel lawmakers to finish a budget in time, or lose their per diem. He’d take it even further, and make lawmakers ineligible for re-election if they can’t pass a budget.
Parish admits that such a proposal is unlikely to get approval from a majority of lawmakers.