Alaska legislators plan to stay in session through at least mid-May -- if not longer

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James Brooks, Anchorage Daily News, Alaska
·3 min read
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Mar. 20—JUNEAU — A year after COVID-19 forced the Alaska Legislature to conclude the shortest state legislative session ever, lawmakers are now planning to work until the session's constitutional limit and may seek a special session this summer.

"We got a late start, but we're on track to finish up the session about the 120th day, which would put us right around May 19," said Rep. Neal Foster, D-Nome and co-chairman of the House Finance Committee.

Foster said additional work may be needed after mid-May if lawmakers are interested in deciding how the state spends more than $1 billion in federal aid authorized by Congress.

Last year, legislators left the decisions up to Gov. Mike Dunleavy, and Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, said he believes there's an appetite among lawmakers to do something different in 2021.

"It's sounding to me like we're going to be running a lot longer than we'd like," said Rep. Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks and a minority member of the finance committee.

The budget schedule envisioned by the House's coalition majority calls for the House to vote on a draft budget on or about April 12. That draft would be sent to the Senate, where senators are planning a counterproposal.

The two drafts must be combined into a final compromise, passed by both House and Senate, and sent to Dunleavy before July 1, the start of the state's fiscal year. Failing to meet that deadline means a government shutdown.

Foster and Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka and co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said they expect votes on the dividend to take place separate from the rest of the budget, but other lawmakers could propose amendments that would change that plan.

Each budget leader said the debate over this year's dividend may be combined with a proposal to permanently change the formula that sets annual payouts.

That formula, in law since 1982, hasn't been used since 2016. Each year since then, legislators have set the dividend by fiat.

"It's my intent right now that we just focus on the budget, and then we're going to have more, deeper conversations," Foster said when asked about the dividend.

On Wednesday night, members of the joint House-Senate Legislative Council approved a $3 million spending limit for COVID testing and screening at the state Capitol. That contract will now run through June 30, another indicator of a long session.

"I don't think we'll get out in 90 days. We'll be lucky to get out in a full 120 days," Stedman said in the meeting that approved the contract.

Alaskans voted in 2006 to set a 90-day limit for legislative sessions, but that vote lacks binding power. The Alaska Constitution limits sessions to 121 days, and lawmakers can vote to extend the session for another 10 days. Anything more than that requires a special session.

Dunleavy could call lawmakers into that special session, or legislators could call their own, but doing so requires 40 of the Legislature's 60 members.

"Whether or not we could get the two-thirds, I couldn't answer that right now," Foster said.

Correction: The Legislature's has set a $3 million cap for spending on COVID screening and testing at the Capitol, not $4 million. The higher amount was recommended but not adopted.