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5/15/2018
Legislative session notable for shift in tone

By BECKY BOHRER
Associated Press

JUNEAU — For the Alaska Legislature this was the session of compromise. The shift in tone was notable after three years of bitter fights, drawn-out special sessions and gridlock over how to address the state's budget deficit.

Legislators, who've gotten an earful from frustrated Alaskans, decided to trust one another and work together "in order for us to get out of here in an orderly manner," House Speaker Bryce Edgmon said.

Political differences in the House factored in, too.

"A lot of the tone has been, 'Where can the House get 21 votes?'" Senate Majority Leader Peter Micciche said.

That included settling on $1,600 as the size of the check Alaskans will get from the state's oil-wealth fund this year — a figure first set by the House after a prolonged debate that revealed splits among Republicans and Democrats on the dividend issue.

Twenty-one is the minimum number of votes needed for most legislation to pass the 40-member House. The House majority coalition, composed largely of Democrats, officially has 22 members, though Rep. Sam Kito III, near the end of session, declared himself an "independent player."

The session ran past the 90-day, voter-approved limit but finished early Sunday within the constitutional 121-day limit. Gov. Bill Walker said he does not plan to call a special session.

THE ART OF COMPROMISE

The Republican-led Senate didn't get the level of budget cuts some members wanted.

"But when you have a governor that feels a certain way and the House agrees with him, it's two against one," Senate President Pete Kelly said. "We had to get our victories in other ways."

The House majority coalition didn't get the income tax or oil tax overhaul it sought as part of a fiscal package; the Senate killed an income tax bill last year and refused to budge on oil tax changes, earning support from Walker on that issue.

Walker's proposals for a tax to pay for certain infrastructure projects and changes to the budget process failed.

FISCAL PLAN

With taxes a no-go and savings accounts drawn down after six years of deficits, lawmakers dipped into Alaska Permanent Fund earnings to help fill the hole.

They passed legislation, supported by Walker, calling for limited withdrawals from fund earnings to help pay for government costs and to pay Alaskans' dividend checks. The measure shrinks but doesn't entirely eliminate the deficit.

The bill doesn't say how money taken from fund earnings would be divided among government and dividends. The bill retains the existing formula in state law for calculating dividends. But that's been ignored for three years, and there's no guarantee it will be followed in the future.

The dividend is expected to be a hot-button issue during this year's elections.

SMOKING BILL

The Legislature passed a statewide smoke-free workplace bill, which languished in the House Rules Committee for months this year despite widespread support.

It is committee Chair Gabrielle LeDoux's job to schedule bills for floor votes. But the Anchorage Republican opposed the bill and refused to schedule it before Saturday, when lawmakers made their final push to end the session.

LeDoux was one of seven "no" votes in the House but did not speak on the floor. She previously said she did not like "cramming down the throats" of municipalities a program they may not want. The bill will let communities opt-out via local elections.

Lawmakers also passed a package of bills aimed at addressing crime concerns, updates to legislative conflict of interest rules and another $20 million in one-time money for public schools for the coming year.

HOUSE MAJORITY

After the session ended, House Majority Leader Chris Tuck praised the resilience of his caucus, which includes three Republicans and two independents. Absent from the news conference was Kito.

Kito hadn't been meeting with the group but he helped the majority pass the state operating budget Saturday. On Monday, he said Edgmon told him the caucus wanted him replaced as chairman of the Legislative Council.

The coalition lost two members, one before the session and one during. Rep. Dean Westlake resigned in December after female aides accused him of unwanted touching and inappropriate comments. Rep. Zach Fansler resigned in February after a woman accused him of striking her. Both were replaced.

Kito pegged some of his disenchantment to the handling of the smoke-free workplace bill, a measure he supported.

The Juneau Democrat is not seeking re-election. He has cited, as a major factor, a pending change that would bar lawmakers from getting a daily allowance if their primary home is within 50 miles of a legislative session. That would affect Juneau legislators, since regular and some special sessions are held in the capital city.