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By ZACHARY HALASCHAK
Daily News Staff Writer
The clock is ticking.
As a special legislative session created by Gov. Bill Walker came to a close Friday, a new one was started at 1 p.m. that same day, beginning an anxious countdown to the July 1 budget deadline.
Walker convened the new special session in order to give the primarily Democratic House and the Republican-led Senate time to compromise and come up with a budget for the state before the end of the fiscal year.
“Compromise is required to protect Alaskans, our economy, and our future,” Walker said in a statement Friday morning. “To ensure government services will continue after July 1, I am calling the Legislature back in – initially to focus on the operating budget.”
This second special session comes after weeks of disagreement and strife between leadership in both chambers. The House adjourned the first session late Thursday night after pushing a combined capital and operating budget through. That budget would have reversed the Senate's $69 million cuts to education and restored the Alaska Permanent Fund dividends.
In a statement, Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, explained that the House budget passed Thursday was not necessarily intended to end discussions with the Senate, but rather be a starting point for future ones.
"The fact that my coalition sent a budget over to the Senate does not preclude more negotiations with the Senate," Ortiz wrote. "This is not an exit strategy -- it's a jumpstart for the stalled budget process."
Senate President Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, strongly criticized the budget passed by the lower house Thursday night, calling the group's actions “unprecedented” in a press release.
“We are deeply disappointed in the House majority's actions tonight.” Kelly explained. “Contrary to the House majority's rhetoric, their budget and adjournment tonight does not avert a government shutdown, but forces the Legislature into an additional special session that adds costs, grows uncertainty for the public and private sectors, and further hampers the ability of the two bodies to reach a compromise.”
Ortiz told the Daily News that he thought the budget that passed had been a compromise, adding that weeks of negotiations between the two chambers were considered when the legislation was drafted.
“We wanted to make gains on oil tax credits, but we could see that wasn't going to happen,” Ortiz said. “We also included revisions that were agreed to in conference committee.”
Kelly further condemned the House's actions, adding that there had been time Friday to come to a better agreement and that by adjourning early the House left no room for compromise on Friday.
“Time allowed for a compromise with the Senate on this budget,” Kelly said. “The House and Senate could have reached an accord at any time tomorrow – the last day of the special session – and passed a budget, together, for all of Alaska.”
In addition to Republicans in the House and Senate, Gov. Walker also criticized the House's proposed budget, explaining that the legislation that was passed did not represent a workable compromise.
“We were surprised by the House majority's actions tonight,” Walker said in a statement Thursday night. “They did not get the job done for Alaska. A compromise is required to protect Alaskans and put the state on a stable fiscal path.”
Given the beginning of the new special session, Ortiz emphasized that he is fully committed to making sure the government of Alaska does not shut down.
“I as an individual legislator am going to do all that I can to avoid a government shutdown,” Ortiz told the Daily News. “We need a sustainable fiscal plan.”
Ortiz said he understands just how serious this situation has become for the state of Alaska and for residents in the local community.
I'm very aware of the impact a government shutdown would have on the fishing industry, and other key parts of our Southeast economy," he wrote in a statement. "Lawmakers need to prioritize Alaskans over multinational oil corporations, and stabilize Alaska's fiscal future for families and small businesses."
There are two weeks in this new special session. Lawmakers have until July 1 to come to an agreement, or the government, minus essential services, will shut down for the first time in Alaska's history.