An ignoble end to session

Even by recent standards, this legislative session has been underwhelming.

Good morning, Alaska! It’s Day 120 of the legislative session. I apologize to everyone for the lack of a Monday edition, but it is what it is.

In this edition: A look at the end of session, some good bills with an uphill battle, the agenda and reading list.

Not with a bang

As of Monday morning, the Legislature had passed a grand total of eight bills with none of them being the must-pass budget bills. By the end of the day, legislators had passed an additional five bills, including Good legislation preserving the Unangax̂ cemetery in Funter Bay, with none of them being the must-pass budget bills. While we still aren’t all the way through the session, that’s a very low mark for the Legislature’s first session—far fewer than we saw pass the last time it took a month for the House to organize and fewer than even when the covid-19 pandemic cut the 2020 session short. There are certainly some good pieces of legislation among what has passed—and, perhaps more importantly, a distinct lack of particularly egregious bills—but it’s been a very underwhelming “end” to the session. While we can crack jokes about the bills they’re pushing across the finish line with the final hours of session—bridge naming and perfunctory board extensions—the biggest disappointment is the Legislature’s failure to pull the operating budget across the finish line and the prospect of session continuing to drag on for days and weeks. Seeing the pending failure, Gov. Mike Dunleavy has already ordered legislators to keep working in an immediate special session focused on the budget, the PFD and a PFD constitutional amendment that’ll start Thursday.

Why’s this happening: The Legislature has reached this point hobbled by narrow political splits, increasingly stubborn obstructionists, ongoing uncertainty surrounding the pandemic and a bit of good ol’ fashioned procrastination. The operating budget encapsulates it all. A slow start to the session meant a slow start to the budget, a ham-fisted attempt to put a lid the obstructionists in the House saw the budget process run off the rails for a week (seriously, just let them tire themselves out), the federal guidance on the covid-19 relief money threw a wrench into the House version of the operating budget and now legislators are in the difficult position of trying to negotiate together a budget within the confines of the closing moments of session. Who could’ve possibly seen this coming?

What’s happening: A special session called by the governor limits the bills legislators can get into. With it limited to the budget, the PFD and his proposed constitutional amendment on the PFD, legislators are spending the last few days of the regular session pushing through as many bills as possible (just look at the floor agenda below). Because of the state of the operating budget, though, legislators are hampered on just how quickly they can move these bills. Typically, they’d be under the 24-rule by now that allows them to hold hearings with far shorter public notice but that only goes into effect when the operating budget is in the conference committee. But it’s still in the Senate Finance Committee, an amendment-filled floor debate away from passing the Senate.

The plan ahead: The Senate Finance Committee is nearing the end of its budget process. This morning, it introduced a new version of the operating budget that rolls together the capital budget, supplemental budgets and a spending plan for the American Rescue Plan Act funds. It still does not include the dividend. The hope is that it will be a vehicle for speedy passage of all the must-pass measures but it still needs to go through negotiations with the House and governor. It’s likely to make for some very uneventful days starting on Thursday as most of those negotiations happen behind closed doors.

So close and so far

Two significant proposals aimed at helping the unemployed and helping low-wage essential workers passed out of the House and Senate on Monday. There’s the House Labor and Commerce Committee’s House Bill 151 that would provide unemployed parents with an additional $51 per child per week through the end of the year (only about 30% of unemployed people are parents, by the way). And there’s Sen. Tom Begich’s Senate Bill 10 that would provide essential workers and unemployed people with federally funded financial assistance to go to college or other vocational training programs.

Both are good worker-centric policies aimed at helping people either avoid the worst of the economic downturn or climb their way into new opportunities as the state recovers. The big problem, though, is they both have only just passed out of their originating chambers, meaning they both still need to clear the other chamber with a little more than 36 hours left on the clock. There’s always the possibility of some shenanigans where one chamber rolls the other measures into a bill near passage, but it’s going to be a tough job regardless.

On the agenda

Here’s today’s floor calendars:

Reading list

Dreaming of hikes