On the first day of House debate on the operating budget Tuesday, April 9, none of the first fifteen amendments offered impacted the deficit.
Despite the House minority’s calls for deeper cuts, the first five floor amendments, all offered by Rep. David Eastman (R-Wasilla), were intent language.
Article II, Section 13 of the Alaska Constitution reads in part, “Bills for appropriations shall be confined to appropriations.” This is known as the confinement clause.
The Alaska Supreme Court elaborated in Alaska Legislative Council v Knowles that intent language placed in the budget that seeks to create substantive law violates the confinement clause and is unenforceable. A legislator seeking to create substantive law must instead submit a separate bill.
Therefore, intent language amendments are, for the most part, a waste of time and public resources. Ironic, given that Eastman’s amendments, like Amendment 5 preventing the use of State funds to collect union dues, tried to restrict the use of public resources.
Eastman’s first five intent language amendments failed by wide margins Tuesday. A sixth would have prohibited the use of State Head Start funds for sex education.
“If the intent of the amendment is to eliminate good touch/bad touch instruction… I think that’s problematic,” Rep. Dan Ortiz (I-Ketchikan) said on the House floor.
“If parents feel the need to teach their children about it, it should be done in the home,” countered Rep. Sara Rasmussen (R-Anchorage).
“If the parent is the one committing this type of crime, who is the child supposed to go to?” asked House Finance Co-chair Tammie Wilson (R-North Pole).
That amendment, Amendment 13, failed 16-21. House Rules Chair Chuck Kopp (R-Anchorage) and Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux (R-Anchorage) joined minority members in support. Rep. John Lincoln (D-Kotzebue) and Rep. Kelly Merrick (R-Eagle River) were excused.
Four more Eastman intent language amendments also failed, including a hand-written one that would have removed language in support of the preventative Adult Dental Medicaid Benefit.
Dunleavy has proposed eliminating the Adult Dental Benefit. The $8 million UGF cut would cost nearly $19 million in federal funds.
Rep. Andy Josephson (D-Anchorage) said 31,000 people are beneficiaries of the program.
“That’s the equivalent of every man, woman, and child in Juneau going to the dentist,” he said.
Josephson said the language tells the Department of Health & Social Services (DHSS), “We really want you to do this thing, and we’re going to provide the money to do it.”
Rep. Sharon Jackson (R-Eagle River) said the beneficiaries will still have access to emergency dental care.
“If there is a emergency of some kind, they would be taken care of,” she said.
“We all know that is the most expensive care possible,” countered Rep. Geran Tarr (D-Anchorage). “What this does is make it more expensive, not less expensive.”
Eastman didn’t actually offer an amendment to cut the funds.
Amendment 29 from Eastman was yet more intent language encouraging the executive branch to seek additional budget cuts.
“All I have to say, Mr. Speaker, is, seriously?” said an exasperated Wilson. “I’ve never seen this much intent language.”
Amendment 29 also failed, 11-28.
House Speaker Bryce Edgmon (I-Dillingham) ruled subsequent amendments by Eastman out of order.
Minority Members Seek Cuts From Designated General Funds
The first proposed cut to the budget offered by the minority would have closed the recorder’s offices in Kenai and Fairbanks.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy sought to close those, as well as offices in Palmer and Juneau.
Rasmussen, who offered the amendment, said 55 percent of the documents handled by recorder’s offices can be done electronically by notaries or title companies.
“This is not, in my opinion, an essential service,” Rasmussen argued.
“Surveyors would definitely argue that,” responded Rep. Gary Knopp (R-Kenai).
Knopp recognized that the offices, which are revenue-positive, are critical for small miners. Keeping the Kenai and Fairbanks offices was a compromise in House Finance, he added.
“‘Not in my backyard’ is not a valid reason for why we should not make cuts,” said Rep. Ben Carpenter (R-Nikiski), a likely dig at Knopp. “The services provided in the recorder’s offices can also be done by the private sector.”
House Minority Leader Lance Pruitt (R-Anchorage) said that the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has been moving toward incorporating technology.
“They have listened to us. It’s time for us to start adjusting accordingly,” said Pruitt.
If DNR finds it can’t handle the closures of recorder’s offices, Pruitt suggested they can ask for a supplemental budget increase next year.
Relying on supplementals would make the current FY 2020 budget under debate appear smaller than it actually is. The legislature would increase FY 2020 spending next year while attention is focused on the new FY 2021 budget.
Rasmussen’s Amendment 9 failed 13-25. House Minority Whip DeLena Johnson (R-Palmer) joined majority members in opposition.
The $107,000 proposed reduction to designated general funds (DGF) would not have reduced the deficit.
Further, because the proposed cut was to DGF, Rasmussen’s claim that the money could instead be used on education or public safety is extremely unlikely.
Rep. Dave Talerico (R-Healy) offered an amendment to cut $100,000 from the Alaska Legal Services Corporation (ALSC), which provides pro bono legal services to underprivileged Alaskans. He said private donors would make up the difference.
The fund source is the Civil Legal Services Fund. House Finance Co-chair Neal Foster (D-Nome) pointed out that, too, is DGF.
“These designated funds are raised through a portion of court fees. These fees will still be raised if this amendment passes,” Foster said.
Rep. Zack Fields (D-Anchorage) noted that while the cut wouldn’t reduce the deficit, it would reduce access to legal services for survivors of domestic violence.
Talerico’s cut to ALSC failed along caucus lines.
So, of the first fifteen amendments offered Tuesday, there were eleven intent language amendments from Eastman, another from Pruitt, two cuts to DGF from Rasmussen, and a DGF cut from Talerico. As of this writing, no amendments addressing UGF had been offered.
The House continued debating amendments late into the afternoon, finally adjourning shortly after 5:30pm. Edgmon announced that the deadline for amendments to be submitted is 10am Wednesday.
The Senate Finance Committee will take public testimony on the operating budget Thursday and Friday.
On Thursday, the Mat-Su and Fairbanks will testify during the committee’s 9am hearing. Juneau will testify from 1pm-2:15pm. Nome, Bethel, Kotzebue, and Unalaska are scheduled from 2:15pm-2:45pm. Anchorage will testify from 2:45pm-4:45pm.
On Friday, Kenai, Kodiak, and Dillingham will testify from 9am-9:45am. Glennallen, Seward, and Homer are scheduled from 9:45am-10:30am. Ketchikan, Wrangell, and Petersburg are between 1pm and 2pm. Utqiagvik, Tok, and Delta Junction testify from 2pm-2:30pm. Sitka, Cordova, and Valdez are scheduled from 2:30pm-3:30pm. Finally, off-net callers are scheduled from 3:30pm-5pm.