After long, exhausting and mostly dumb weekend, the House postpones final debate on the budget

Things went off the rails.

Good morning, Alaska! It’s Day 105 of the legislative session.

In this edition: A recap of the budget weekend, including amendments and what’s next, a look at Fairbanks’ spiking covid cases, the reading list, the agenda and a newsletter-related Tweet.

The budget

It was a long, exhausting and mostly dumb weekend for the Alaska House of Representatives as it attempted to get through the operating budget. It started out normal enough on Friday night and through Saturday as the chamber worked through the free-for-all that is amending the budget on the floor. What everyone figured would probably be the biggest hurdle of the day, the PFD, came at about midday on Saturday when Rep. Kevin McCabe’s amendment proposing a full PFD hit the floor.

"This is the full PFD amendment," he said. "You get to put your vote where your mouth is. … You get to vote for the full PFD."

In a largely symbolic effort, Rep. Sara Rasmussen offered an amendment that would combine the $2 billion spend with $2 billion in cuts to state government, slicing pretty much every other budget clean in half (in unspecified, unallocated cuts). She ultimately withdrew it, noting that it would likely trigger an avalanche of lawsuits.

The argument over the PFD was pretty much as you’d expect given the battle lines that have been drawn. While the pro-PFD crowd acknowledged that paying out such a PFD was reckless and unsustainable they at least acknowledged that there needs to be a bigger discussion about the future of the fund and the state’s financial situation. Opponents warned against overspending the Alaska Permanent Fund, arguing that it would undermine the fund and the state’s financial future in the blink of an eye.

“The passage of this amendment is not tenable and it’s not good for the long-term of Alaska because when you spend down the permanent fund unsustainably, everybody loses,” said Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins. “If you like dividends, you lose. You’re not going to be able to pay dividends in the future. If you care about ferries or the Silvertip Maintenance Station on the Kenai or whatever your priority is, you lose. You lose. Everybody loses when we start spending down the permanent fund, everybody loses no matter what your priority is. The long-term of Alaska loses. So, be aware that’s the implication. if you’re going to propose amendments like this, figure out where the money is going to come from. Put forward a full and complete plan.” 

The vote failed on a 20-20 margin with minority Republican Reps. LeBon and Thompson joining the House Coalition while Coalition Reps. Snyder, Foster and Patkotak joined the minority.

The amendment process continued through the afternoon, with minority Republicans seeing a grand total of five amendments approved with crossover support from House Coalition Republican Rep. Kelly Merrick and Independent Josiah Patkotak (a recurring theme). When it got to the late hours, the House adjourned after some back and forth with observers noting that it’d take a majority vote to return to amendments on Sunday and that it’d allow the majority to cut off the amendment process with about 30 more amendments pending… which is exactly what happened.

Losing the vote to return to amendments on Sunday morning, minority Republicans cried foul as dozens of amendments went unheard into debate on the bill itself. The floor debate, what little did happen on Sunday, was acrimonious and tempers flared as minority Republican floated the 1981 coup (which saw House leadership change behind locked doors) and references to text message receipts. After a torturous day with many lengthy at-eases, the House announced that it had kicked the operating budget back to the House Rules Committee for further work, an olive branch to the incensed minority.

What’s going on: It turns out that passing an operating budget with a 21-member majority is, in fact, really hard! Democrats are in the majority thanks to the support of Reps. Kelly Merrick and Josiah Patkotak, but they’re also watching as Merrick and Patkotak (as well as a handful of others) are helping the minority get their amendments passed. Without any votes to spare, it’s put a lot of pressure on the 21-member majority as some of the more progressive members are getting chafed at the shifting budget. Traditionally, the minority budget amendments wouldn’t get any traction but also majorities are typically not a slim 21.

Whether they’ve actually walked away from the budget at this point isn’t entirely clear, but pushing the budget back to the Rules Committee in large part to appease the minority’s moderate Reps. Steve Thompson and Bart LeBon could help shore up the votes. Either way, it certainly sticks a wrench in the Legislature’s hopes of being done on Day 121. The Senate Finance Committee was set to start hearing the bill today.

The big picture: The House is just one step along the way. Still ahead is the Senate, whose “marathon” session on the disaster declaration bill last week looks quaint following the House’s standards, and the budget conference committee. I’ve had more than a few people gripe to me with some variation of “Guys, live to fight another day.” It’s hard to see how some of the amendments pushed by the minority would actually survive the whole process.

What’s changed: The House approved several minority-run amendments before they hit the wall. Those are as follows:

  • Caps legislative per diem at about four months, cutting the maximum allowable per diem in half to $1.9 million. Some member worried that it would give the governor leverage over legislators in the event of a special session during the interim. It was adopted on a 23-17 vote with Reps. Fields, Foster, Merrick, Patkotak and Rasmussen joining the minority Republicans.

  • Intent language that DNR sell gravel or fill extracted from state land at cost to government agencies or public corporations that are “not competing with private industry.” The amendment was offered by Rep. Kevin McCabe and passed 21-19 with Reps. Merrick, Patkotak and Rasmussen joining the minority Republicans.

  • An amendment making the Legislature’s budget contingent on the Capitol being opened to the public on or before May 19, 2021, which is the final day of session. The amendment was by Rep. David Eastman and passed with Reps. Merrick, Patkotak and Rasmussen joining the minority Republicans.

  • A transfer from the Alaska Liquefied Natural Gas Project Fund to the Department of Law to defend the state’s position on the Second Amendment. It was offered by Rep. David Nelson and passed 23-17 with Reps. Merrick, Patkotak, Rasmussen, Stutes and Tuck joining the minority Republicans.

  • Cut $126,000 in state and $126,000 in federal funds for supplies for the Division of Public Assistance as part of the move to more online applications, which isn’t actually expected to be fully enacted this following year. It was offered by Rep. Vance and passed 21-19 with Reps. Merrick, Patkotak and Rasmussen joining the minority Republicans.

Younger, angrier and unvaccinated

“Younger, angrier and unvaccinated.” That’s the start of an excellent piece from the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner examining how the skyrocketing cases in the community are differing from the early days of the pandemic. Hospital beds are no longer as filled with older people and Alaska Natives, two groups that were particularly hard hit by the pandemic and where vaccination efforts were initially focused. Instead, patients are younger than before, they’re staying longer because they’re less likely to die and, most importantly, they’re not fully vaccinated. Per the News-Miner:

When the in-patient census was taken last week, none of the Covid patients were fully vaccinated, Ramirez said. Additionally, the hospital has not seen any fully vaccinated people getting hospitalized with the virus.

“These are young people,” Creighton said. “These are middle aged white guys — sorry to say that — but it really is the demographics of people who haven't gotten around to get vaccinated or don't really feel that they need vaccination because they are younger, in their 40s, and they want to see what the vaccine is going to do before they take it.”

The biggest point of the vaccine isn’t necessarily to stop you from getting the virus—which it does a pretty dang good job at doing, by the way—but that in the event that you do get sick, you don’t end up in the hospital. Instead, down in Anchorage, you have a mayoral candidate who’s wondering if there was even a pandemic in the first place.

Reading list

On the agenda

We’re in the final stretch where the budget is the main thing on the agenda. Who knows how and when it’ll emerge at this point.

11 a.m. Joint floor session to hear the annual address from Alaska U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan.

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