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Day 117: The cracks are showing
As the House and Senate have a staredown over the budget and the dividend, it's hard to ignore that they're not exactly on the same footing.
Happy Saturday, Alaska! It’s a sun-warmed dog kind of day.
In this edition: We’re into the final, final stretch of the regular session with pretty much nothing close to a resolution on the budget as the House and Senate hold firm on their spending priorities—the House demanding the $2,700 PFD and the Senate demanding that they stay within their means. The Senate has held onto the budget to maximize its leverage over a House that, critically, doesn’t even have the votes in its chamber to get what it wants. It’s a situation pushing the already-existing cracks in an uneasy House Majority where the extreme-right crowd is getting frustrated their not getting their extreme-right way. Also, I’ve got the reading list and weekend watching.
Current mood: 🥎
Earlier in the legislative session, the Senate circulated a draft schedule for the final month and a half of the legislative session that showed how everything could neatly line up and the Legislature could go through the normal budget process and could wrap up its business on time. But that would take everyone being on board and there being some resolution to the intractable differences of the chambers: The Senate’s desire not to deficit spend and the House’s desire to pay out a large dividend, which requires deficit spending without cuts or new revenue (that they’re not proposing in any meaningful way). Unsurprisingly, things have not worked out that way, and with five days left on the clock, the budget sat in Senate Finance until this morning, where the Senate remains in the driver’s seat with the power to continue making changes.
And that’s just what they’ve been doing.
On Thursday, the Senate Finance Committee introduced a “turducken” budget that packs together the operating and capital budgets into one giant package positioned to force the House into a take-it-or-leave-it-for-a-special-session vote.
It’s a hardline approach, but frustration is boiling over. At a news conference on Thursday, Senate leadership blasted the Republican-led House, pulling back the curtains on what they characterized as a chamber in disarray. Senators pointed out that the House Majority had promised to get a wishlist of their priorities on the capital budget but never delivered on it and that meetings between the two chambers were regularly canceled.
The Senate’s latest iteration of the budget just balances—as long as oil prices don’t fall by any more than a dollar below forecasts—and takes a new approach to the dividend that mirrors the thinking behind the Senate’s PFD bill. They’ve set up a system with a shot at a larger dividend, but only if the state’s financial health vastly improves. It starts with the $1,300 PFD that doesn’t require a draw on savings and grows it if oil cracks the $83 mark up to the House-favored $2,700 if oil reaches $105 a barrel (they’re forecasted in the low $73s currently) for the year’s average. Unlikely but not impossible in the current global political climate.
It seems like a non-starter to a House that has essentially made the $2,700 PFD its leading policy goal in this year’s budget, likely dooming us to another year of special sessions and worry about a potential government shutdown.
The problem, though, is that for all House Republicans’ demands for a $2,700 PFD, they don’t have the votes for the $2,700 PFD, and everyone knows it.
A budget with that large of a dividend—without new revenue or cuts—creates a deficit, which requires a three-quarter vote to tap the Constitutional Budget Reserve. But, with resistance from the House Minority Coalition—whose members walked out when the House Majority tied school funding to the vote—they fell seven votes short of that benchmark when they passed the budget on April 17.
By all public-facing indications, nothing has changed in the month since then to bring the House Minority on board. The House hasn’t advanced any new revenue or cuts to ease the financial picture or even shown interest in easing the financial picture.
In all, the House Majority hasn’t shown it has much meaningful leverage to get what it wants in this situation. The question, really, is whether they’ll be willing to push things to the brink anyway.
What’s next: It will likely come down to the inner dynamics of the House Majority. Will they stand united and be willing to push the state into a special session and possibly toward a shutdown to force everyone to turn over the keys to the state’s savings account? Or will the already uneasy organization fracture, and could a handful of moderate Majority members—they’d need five along with the 16-member House Minority (though it sounds like caucus-less Rep. David Eastman could somehow be a wild card)—sign off on the Senate budget rather than subject the state to yet another round of brinksmanship?
The last-minute Gavel Classic, chaos edition
I definitely did not blank on getting the annual legislative guessing game organized earlier in the session. Nope! It was always my plan to launch it with less than a week left on the clock.
So, when do you think the Legislature will be done this year?
Being “done” means passing a budget and both chambers adjourning, which can be at the end of the regular session on May 17, 10 days later through a legislative extension or some other date if the governor calls them into an immediate special session in the event they’re not actually done with the budget. Or some other option that we can’t foresee. Enter your guess down to the minute and the closest without going over will get some bragging rights and some other prize that I’ve yet to figure out.
The cracks are showing
If we needed any indication that the House Majority isn’t on the same page, look no further than the 20-20 vote on far-right Homer Republican Rep. Sarah Vance’s bill to ban boycotts on Israel. Most chamber majorities try to avoid this profoundly embarrassing failure by ensuring they have the votes for a majority bill before they bring legislation to the floor. I can only think of one other time this has happened while I’ve covered the Legislature (the other being former Fairbanks Sen. Pete Kelly’s attempt to undermine the legalization of cannabis).
Precisely what happened isn’t entirely clear, but the following votes showed incredible frustration with Rep. Vance’s focus on the far-right culture wars as the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, which has become the most conservative committee with her wielding the gavel, over a load of other legislation.
Rep. Jennie Armstrong, D-Anchorage, followed up the move by motioning to eject her LGBTQ anti-discrimination measure from the committee (it’s progressed through two committees only to stall out in Judiciary). That move failed 22-18, but it saw Majority Reps. Neal Foster, D-Nome, and CJ McCormick, D-Bethel, split from the majority supporting the motion.
Then a more shocking development came when Majority Rep. Jesse Sumner, a moderate Wasilla Republican who once ran against Rep. David Eastman, moved to discharge Sen. Matt Claman’s Senate Bill 53 from the Judiciary Committee after it also hadn’t received any hearings. The legislation would mandate the state file involuntary commitments against violent offenders who are found incompetent to stand trial, seeking to close a gap that advocates say led to the February 2022 stabbing at the Anchorage Library that left the victim paralyzed. Vance has been noncommittal about the legislation, instead focusing on her already-doomed attempt to repeal open primaries and ranked-choice voting.
After a flurry of tense breaks, Sumner ultimately withdrew his motion and Vance promised to hear the bill in the afternoon. Instead, however, that hearing was almost entirely focused on that doomed repeal of open primaries and ranked-choice voting.
Here’s an interesting tidbit from the Anchorage Daily News’ excellent reporting on the situation:
Claman said he discussed the bill with Vance after the House floor session, and she told him she wanted to follow the will of Angela Harris, the victim of the library stabbing.
“I understand that today you commented that you would do what I preferred,” Harris wrote in an email Friday afternoon to Vance’s office obtained by the Anchorage Daily News. “If that is the case, I wanted you to know that I would appreciate you passing the current version of the bill through to the finance committee today.”
Asked after the floor session whether he thought the bill would advance from the Judiciary Committee, Sumner said “it will get out of that committee, one way or another.”
Why it matters: What’s going on in the House now reflects what’s been happening with the Alaska Republican Party over the last decade. While they may have all once uneasily gotten along, the gaps are quickly widening between the faction of extreme-right ideologues and the moderate-by-comparison faction who aren’t quite as motivated by the culture war of the day, especially when they are distracting from other legislative goals. It’s probably why Rep. Vance is so keen on repealing an election system that has ushered in a new class of centrist Republicans.
Not helping the situation is the fact that the extreme right has been coming up through an echo chamber of conservative blogs and talk radio that seems to have convinced them that they should get their way on everything and anything now that they have a nominal legislative majority. This session ought to be a lesson that holding a narrow majority comes with a cost, but it’s not like admitting you might have been wrong is a valuable virtue in politics.
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A new Star Wars video game came out a few weeks ago, and that’s been eating up most of my free time and spare brain space lately, so here’s a neat video about one of the makers behind the costumes.
Have an excellent weekend, y’all.