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Day 121: 'Kabuki theater'
Even though time had run out to reject the pay raises, the House held a debate so legislators could denounce the raises while knowing full well they'd still get them.
Good morning, Alaska. It’s the final day of the 2023 regular legislative session.
In this edition: Legislators have effectively run out the clock, allowing pretty significant pay raises for themselves to go into effect. The House held a symbolic vote to reject them on Tuesday, which several legislators pointed out was nothing more than political theater because it was being brought so late that it had no chance of making a difference. Still, that didn’t stop several legislators from denouncing the raises while knowing they’d still get them. The turducken school funding bill advanced after becoming a flashpoint of House Majority divisions on Monday night, but it looks like the damage is done and won’t pass this session. Meanwhile, the budget impasse continues.
Current mood: 😒
The penultimate day of the 2023 legislative session didn’t produce any action on the Legislature’s must-do job of passing the budget, but it did see time run out for legislators to block a substantial pay increase for themselves.
With the 17-member Senate Majority firmly in favor of the pay raises, the failure to reject the pay raises has been a foregone conclusion since the State Officer Compensation Commission approved the raises in a 15-minute meeting in March. That approval came after the commissioners were all replaced by Gov. Mike Dunleavy after the Legislature rejected an initial recommendation for the governor and his cabinet, but not legislators, to get pay raises.
Still, it didn’t stop the Republican-led House Majority from bringing an entirely symbolic vote to the House floor on Tuesday so legislators could decry the raises while knowing full well that they’d still get them.
“I think for my conscience, I need to make a statement: Don’t cut the PFD, don’t shut down government, don’t overspend and give me a raise. It doesn’t sit well with me,” said Anchorage Republican Rep. Craig Johnson, who, as the House Rules Committee chair, has the power to set the House calendar.
Legislators voted 33-7 to approve a bill rejecting the pay raises (though it initially voted 29-11 in favor of it). Still, many called out the entire process, from the governor’s abrupt axing of the commissioners for a more friendly panel to how the Legislature’s leadership dragged its feet and waited until the vote would be meaningless.
Rep. Donna Mears, D-Anchorage, noted some had likened it to Kabuki theater and accused the House of being run with the interests of legislators in mind.
“I’m beyond frustrated with the process and the outcome we’re looking at here. I’m frustrated with the process of the salary commission and with the process of this body. This bill has been in Rules for weeks,” she said. “This is not how we should be operating. This is not the outcome we should be having. This body, I’m seeing as a freshman, is operated far more in the interest of the members here than it should. It should be operating far more in the interests of Alaskans, and it’s not doing that work nearly as well as it should.”
Others said it was unsightly for them to accept 67% pay increases without addressing the state’s pressing needs or even passing a budget.
Rep. Mears noted that there was legislation aimed at reforming the process of determining legislator pay, including a provision that would have made it so the pay increases go into effect at the start of a new Legislature every two years rather than at the beginning of the new legislative session every year. As it stands, the pay raises will go into effect for legislators in January 2024.
Despite bipartisan support, that legislation has sat in the House Rules for over a month.
A handful of legislators spoke in defense of the pay raises, echoing many of the sentiments shared by the Senate leadership about the need to attract a diverse range of legislators regardless of their wealth.
“It’s not about making a buck,” said Rep. George Rauscher, R-Sutton. “I think it has to be able to do it without going in the hole and going bankrupt. I don’t think just retired people with another retirement should be able to sit here in my seat because they can afford to do what I’m doing. I don’t think people who are rich should be able to sit in my seat and do what I do because they can afford it. I think everybody deserves the opportunity.”
Under the commission’s recommendations, legislators will receive a 67% pay raise that will bring the annual salary of legislators up to $84,000. The proposal makes no corresponding changes to per diem, which allows legislators who live outside of the capital city to collect $307 per legislative day or about $37,000 for the 121-day legislative session. Special sessions, like the one the Legislature is likely to head into unless there’s a breakthrough on the budget, can boost that number even more.
School funding advances
The school funding turducken bill I wrote about yesterday advanced out of the House Finance Committee on Tuesday, still containing the permanent $680 increase to the base student allocation and pupil transportation funding grafted onto the underlying bill dealing with school internet upgrades.
On Monday night, the bill became a flashpoint of the House Majority’s internal divisions when several members broke away from the House’s far-right Republicans to join the House Minority’s members in adding the BSA increase to the bill. Far-right Republicans who make up the core of the House Majority have opposed a permanent increase, instead favoring one-time increases that leave schools unable to plan.
The Monday night meeting was halted when House Speaker Cathy Tilton and Rules Chair Craig Johnson arrived in House Finance and pulled the members into a closed-door meeting. The bill was tabled, making its passage through the House unlikely given the dwindling days of the session.
On Tuesday, it seemed like Republican support for the legislation had considerably cooled. Fairbanks Republican Rep. Will Stapp and Frank Tomaszewski, who had both supported adding the BSA to the bill, were now opposed to advancing the legislation to the floor. Both focused on the cost of the underlying legislation dealing with internet upgrades as their primary source of consternation, noting that it had shifted from tens of millions to several thousand as the session had gone on.
Fairbanks GOP Rep. Frank Tomaszewski noted the updated fiscal note was written by rural Democratic Sens. Lyman Hoffman and Donny Olson, both key supporters of the bill, calling it “curious.”
But the House Republicans don’t, on their own, command a majority on the House Finance Committee. Rural Majority Reps. Neal Foster and Bryce Edgmon, for whom the internet upgrade legislation is a priority, joined the Minority members in advancing the bill.
Why it matters
The bill still faces a steep uphill battle to actually get passed today. It sits in the House Rules Committee now where Rep. Craig Johnson—who helped nix the Monday night meeting and featured throughout the foot-dragging on the legislative pay increase fight—will decide if and when it gets scheduled for a vote.
And even if the House votes to discharge the bill from committee and override Johnson, that day lost by the Monday-night intervention will likely prove pivotal. That’s because bills require a supermajority of 27 votes in the House to advance to a final vote on the day they arrive on the floor. So while there are likely the votes to pass the bill on a simple majority vote, it would take a considerable number of Republicans to buck the House Majority leadership to bring it to a vote today.
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Budget impasse continues
There’s still no deal on the budget, and it’s entirely possible that there won’t be any budget votes today. The Senate has now made clear that it won’t bring the budget to a vote without guaranteeing that the House would pass it so today could be very anticlimactic.
There’s been talk about budget deals that would open up the possibility for an energy rebate to be tacked onto the Senate-preferred $1,300 PFD that would depend on increased oil prices. There’s also been talk about the Senate trading consideration of House-favored constitutional amendments dealing with the PFD and a spending cap for a passed budget.
The Senate can still change the operating budget by holding onto it rather than sending it to a conference committee. Conference committees are limited to hashing out the differences between the two budget versions and can’t make wholly new additions.
Still, the underlying problem remains that the House Majority doesn’t command enough votes to accomplish much of anything on its own. For example, drawing out savings requires a 30-vote supermajority in the House, and constitutional amendments require a 27-vote supermajority. So with its narrow majority, the House Majority needs the votes House Minority, which isn’t exactly something the Senate can offer in negotiations.