Day 80: Hostage takers
Hostage-taking is in the eye of the beholder.
Good morning, Alaska! It’s Day 80 of the legislative session.
In this edition: The budget process in the House ground to a halt on Wednesday in one of the more acrimonious days in recent legislative memory. At the heart of the issue is a last-minute bid by the House Majority to force the House Minority to support a deficit-filling draw on state savings by linking the vote to a one-time boost in education funding, which had already passed the House. Call it hostage-taking, call it arm-twisting, call it “just what happens every year,” the effect is the same: Tie something the minority wants to something that they don’t want to give you.
Current mood: 😵💫
Work on the operating budget ground to a halt on Wednesday following a last-minute change pushed by the Republican-led House Majority to tie a one-time increase in school funding to a vote to tap savings to cover the roughly $600 million deficit in the budget. While members of the Majority argued there was nothing untoward about the maneuver, it set off one of the more heated days in recent memory. Fifteen of the 16 members of the bipartisan Minority Coalition staged a brief walkout, only to return armed with motions and maneuvering that would make the old, obstructionist Republican Minority—many of whom are now part of the majority—proud.
One side argues it’s a totally normal bit of budgeting. The other argues that it’s tantamount to hostage-taking to force the Minority to help pay for a budget they have significant reservations about. Which, frankly, are two sides of the same coin.
Here are the basics of what’s happening.
The budget process started with an amendment that would put $175 million in one-time funding to schools, the same amount proposed in legislation that would implement a $680 increase to the base student allocation. It’s a number that, based on previous testimony, falls short of the needs of most school districts, particularly those in rural Alaska. Still, if the number passes the House, it would effectively set a bare baseline minimum for school funding for this year because, by most accounts, the Senate is eyeing a more generous increase to school funding. Again, however, the one-time nature of the funding makes next year uncertain (though it would be politically difficult for the Legislature to really backtrack on it).
This amendment passed 39-1 with the money coming out of general funds, which—if you really wanted to squint—gave the funding the impression of becoming a long-term piece of the state budget.
The problem is that it leaves the budget with a total deficit in the neighborhood of $600 million. At some point in the process, the Legislature will have to figure out how to close that deficit, whether it be with immediate new revenues (which is politically unlikely and logistically near-impossible), cuts much larger than the $70,000 here and there that the Majority achieved in cutting a handful of vacant positions or spending from savings.
The Majority has opted for the latter solution, targeting the Constitutional Budget Reserve to cover the budget gaps in what House Finance Committee co-Chair Rep. DeLena Johnson, R-Palmer, has called a “band-aid” as they work on a bigger fiscal plan. That requires a three-quarter vote of each chamber, which means they need to get the House Minority on board, and so far, the Minority has opposed the vote. Instead, they’ve argued they could balance the budget and increase education funding if they cut the state’s largest single expenditure: The PFD.
That’s not something the Republican-led Majority is particularly interested in after they already retreated from their long-held position of a full dividend according to the long-ignored statute to a dividend funded with 50% of the spendable revenue from the Alaska Permanent Fund’s investment income. So they went from a $3,500 payout to a $2,700 payout. The Minority’s proposal would be closer to about $1,300.
Hence, why we’re now in leverage territory, with work on the budget all but done in the House, the House Majority reopened the near-unanimous vote for school funding to make it dependent on the constitutional budget reserve vote passing.
Call it hostage-taking, arm-twisting, or “just what happens every year,” the effect is the same: Tie something the minority wants to something that they don’t want to give to you and hope that they’ll give it to you.
Faced with a lose-lose situation, most House Minority members walked off the House floor altogether. It stalled business for several hours before they returned, setting up some fiery speeches and more motions that House Speaker Cathy Tilton ruled out of order, prompting a particularly heated afternoon.
“We are holding our kids hostage. We are singling out children,” said Rep. Jennie Armstrong, D-Anchorage, during the fight over the maneuvering. “This was a bait-and-switch, scorched-earth tactic.”
With tempers rising, the House eventually adjourned for the night with the gambit over the school funding left unresolved.
Rep. Neal Foster, D-Nome, is one of the former coalition members who joined the Republican-led Majority. According to the Alaska Beacon’s reporting (which is an excellent account of everything), he said the minority misunderstood what was happening.
“The subtleties of politics are not always obvious,” he said, not precisely explaining what they were missing.
Others pointed out that the House Minority Coalition has proposed precisely what they’re objecting to now. Members have run amendments that would have tied part of the PFD to the CBR draw. One Republican said that was a backdoor attempt to cut the PFD, which might have you wondering about the plan to tie school funding to it.
Between the lines
Of the many issues at play here, there’s an enormous distrust between the Majority and Minority caucuses. As a result, the Minority has been on high alert for budget shenanigans from the Majority, and, lo and behold, here’s budget shenanigans over the Minority’s single most important policy goal for the session.
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