And, they’re back.
Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer swore in the members of the 31st Alaska State Legislature on Tuesday, January 15.
“Your job and responsibility is huge,” Meyer told senators on the floor, “but it is truly an honor knowing the great people of Alaska have put their trust and faith in you to represent them at this historical institution called the Alaska State Senate.”
Meyer, a Republican from Anchorage, previously served as Senate president, Senate majority leader, and as a member of the House. He had similar comments for House members.
Meyer shared a gubernatorial ticket with former Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R-Wasilla).
Dunleavy garnered 51 percent of the vote in the November general election, beating former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) by seven percent. Incumbent Gov. Bill Walker received two percent of the vote after informally withdrawing from consideration too late to have his name removed from the ballot.
Sen. Cathy Giessel (R-Anchorage) took up the gavel Tuesday as the new president of the Senate. Giessel was the only nominee and was elected by unanimous consent.
“This is an honor, and I’m humbled,” she said from the dais.
A unanimous vote for a presiding officer is a traditional demonstration of collegiality that also acknowledges a clear legislative majority. It was a shock to many when Rep. David Eastman (R-Wasilla) cast the lone vote against Speaker of the House Bryce Edgmon (D-Dillingham) two years ago.
Not so this year, as the House has failed to organize.
House Republicans presented a new 21-member majority the day after unseating Rep. Jason Grenn (I-Anchorage) and Rep. Paul Seaton (R-Homer), both of whom caucused with Democrats in the 30th legislature. Rep. Dave Talerico (R-Healy) was declared the next speaker of the House.
Then Rep. Gary Knopp (R-Soldotna) announced a month later that he would not join a 21-member coalition.
“You’d be foolish to go to Juneau with such a shaky caucus and then implode once you’re in session,” Knopp told KINY. “I’m trying to force a coalition talk. It’s the only way the House will function. I want a functional House. I don’t care about control or not, I want a functional House.”
But the legislature’s Uniform Rules do not allow the House to conduct any business without the votes of at least 21 members. That includes electing a speaker or confirming Sharon Jackson as the replacement for Nancy Dahlstrom.
Dahlstrom won the House District 13 seat, representing a portion of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER) and North Eagle River. Dunleavy later appointed her Commissioner of Corrections on the third day of his administration, further reducing the Republican caucus to 19.
On the House floor Tuesday, when Meyer attempted to accept Dunleavy’s letter advising of Jackson’s appointment, Rep. Chris Tuck (D-Anchorage) intervened. As a member of the executive branch, Meyer was violating the separation of powers by accepting the letter, Tuck argued.
“You’re a part of the administration, not part of the legislature,” Tuck told Meyer.
AS 24.05.160 allows the lieutenant governor to call the House to order, name its elected members, administer the oath of office, and take nominations for a speaker pro tempore, at which point he “shall relinquish the chair.” The statute does not provide for any other actions by the lieutenant governor.
Meyer had not taken nominations for a speaker pro tem. Yet he countered that because the appointment letter was addressed to House Republicans, rather than the House itself, he could accept it.
Tuck refused to budge, saying that the only authority the House confers on the lieutenant governor is to accept nominations for the speaker pro tem.
“This is the House, and only the House can do its business,” Tuck affirmed.
Incidentally, Meyer later accepted a pro forma message from the Senate that the chamber had convened.
After a lengthy recess to sign oaths of office, the House reconvened, only to adjourn until Wednesday without having taken a nomination for a presiding officer.
House Unable to Perform Simplest Acts of Governing
Typically, the first week of a new legislature would be filled with brief organizational committee meetings and department overviews. Often committee chairs will schedule hearings on their own bills.
That holds true for the Senate this week. The Senate Finance Committee begins work Wednesday with an update on the oil production and revenue forecasts.
But the House’s failure to organize precludes a similar start. Even mundane tasks, such as scheduling committee hearings, cannot be completed because legislators don’t know who committee chairs will be or how the committees will allocate seats between caucuses.
In a memo posted by KTVA, Human Resources Manager Skiff Lobaugh advised that House staff cannot work beyond Tuesday because the Uniform Rules only authorize the House Rules Chair to staff the House. Lobaugh said that staff cannot be paid until there is a House Rules Chair. They may not qualify for seniority steps that tie in to pay increases, and they could have gaps in health insurance coverage.
Aides to individual legislators and committees are re-hired for every legislative session and interim period.
“Unfortunately, if the lack of organization goes on too long, the employees will have reported to all the benefits systems as ineligible and that takes quite a while to rectify,” Lobaugh cautioned. “It is very possible that if the House does not organize there will be session employees who will not be able to utilize their benefits, even though they are required to pay for them.”
A House Rules Chair could eventually make pay and benefits retroactive once organization is achieved.
Senate Rules Chair John Coghill (R-North Pole) said in a press conference Tuesday that of all the issues the House currently faces, he considers the lack of staff to be the most significant because it hampers communication between with two legislative chambers.
Negotiations to form a House majority are ongoing.
For now, Shana Crondahl of Alaska Education Update reports that incoming representatives are using the office spaces held by the last representatives from their districts.
This means freshman Rep. Sarah Vance (R-Homer) is occupying the massive House Finance co-chair’s office previously used by Seaton. Vance defeated Seaton in the general election after Seaton chose to run as an unaffiliated candidate, rather than face Vance in the Republican primary.
House, Governor Likely to Delay Budget Work
Traditionally, the House takes the lead on the operating budget, the largest of the three budgets passed every year. If the House fails to organize soon, it will delay work on the budget and likely guarantee — for the sixth session in a row — that legislators work beyond their statutory limit of 90 days.
Dunleavy’s preliminary Fiscal Year 2020 budget includes $1.9 billion for Permanent Fund dividends (PFDs), amounting to about $3,000 per person. But it also includes a $1.6 billion unallocated cut to government, equal to the deficit a PFD of that size would cause.
“It is fair to say that dividends compete with government services for available revenue,” the nonpartisan Legislative Finance Division responded in an overview of the preliminary budget. “It is also fair to say that the competition during the FY20 budget process is likely to be fierce, particularly if oil prices remain low and use of savings to balance the budget is minimal.”
Comments from Senate Majority members Tuesday reinforced the point made by Legislative Finance.
“That would leave us quite a substantial hole that we have to figure out how we’re going to deal with,” Senate Finance Co-chair Bert Stedman (R-Sitka) said of the deficit. “We’re basically backed into [spending] the Permanent Fund [for] next fiscal year’s budget.”
Senate Finance Co-chair Natasha von Imhof (R-Anchorage) clarified that a percent-of-market-value (POMV) draw from the Permanent Fund earnings reserve, like the one the legislature adopted last year, is sustainable. However, draws beyond that amount would reduce investment returns over the long term, she cautioned.
“We just don’t go to the Permanent Fund and spend it,” agreed Stedman. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for us to liquidate it over the next several years and give future generations nothing but an empty oil field.”
Dunleavy submitted Walker’s budget to meet a December 15 statutory deadline. In a barbed press release, the Dunleavy administration blamed Walker for the deficit and said a revised budget is forthcoming that will “reign [sic] in state spending[.]”
However, Dunleavy did not submit a ten-year plan, also required by statute. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) website still includes a link to the FY 2019 ten-year plan submitted by the Walker administration.
“The Governor is required by AS 37.07.020(b) to submit a ten-year expenditure plan to the legislature. If the Dunleavy administration intends to change the path of expenditures, the Governor must provide a new spending plan that reflects the fiscal future he envisions,” the Legislative Finance Division chastised.
Stedman seemed to agree Tuesday, pointedly saying he expects Dunleavy to propose legislation to address some spending that is mandated by statute. He expects OMB to submit a revised budget that is transparent and doesn’t shift funds between sources to artificially reduce the deficit, he added.
von Imhof anticipates Dunleavy’s revised budget the second week of February. She said cuts will come from privatization, reducing social services, merging government agencies, and reducing administrative costs.
While Stedman believes Dunleavy’s budget will include up to $1.6 billion in reductions — a number that seems unrealistic based on the efforts of past Senate Finance Committees — he said the governor will have to account for increased spending on public safety.
“We’re not going to close our prisons down and open the doors, close down the Pioneer Homes and put grandma out on the street. That’s stuff’s not happening,” Stedman said.
As for the House, Stedman said he looks forward to working with the House Finance Committee when they organize and hopes they’ll pay attention to the work of the Senate Finance Committee in the meantime.
“We’re not going to wait for them. We’re moving on,” Stedman declared.
This article brought to you by Carol Channing and Ann Jillian singing, “Can You Do Addition?”