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AK lawmakers to change venue: Gov. Dunleavy calls for special session in Wasilla

Associated Press

JUNEAU — Alaska lawmakers ended their special session Thursday already anticipating another, leaving unsettled a state infrastructure budget and the size of dividend checks to pay residents this year from Alaska's oil-wealth fund.

"We will be coming back this summer, and I wanted to assure the public that we are going to absolutely provide a dividend this year," House Majority Leader Steve Thompson said in a floor speech.

Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy called for the next special session to start July 8 in his hometown of Wasilla, listing the recommended venue of a middle school there.

He said a change of venue was needed to "refocus the conversation."

Dunleavy's proclamation deals with the payment of the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend, or PFD. "Once the issue of the PFD is solved, these other budgetary issues will fall into place quickly," he said in a statement.

House Speaker Bryce Edgmon told reporters earlier in the day he didn't see a special session taking place in Wasilla.

"I think the more productive environment is here in Juneau," the Dillingham independent said. The Legislative Affairs Agency previously raised concerns with the school site, but Dunleavy spokesman Matt Shuckerow said the facility is "more than adequate."

The governor can call lawmakers into special session or lawmakers can call themselves into one. Senate President Cathy Giessel said there were discussions underway surrounding those options.

On Thursday, with time running out in this special session, the Senate accepted the remnants of the capital budget the House passed Wednesday.

The House failed to reach the three-quarter threshold required to fund major provisions, which Senate Finance Committee Co-chair Sen. Natasha von Imhof said left millions of dollars in projects unfunded and federal match money at risk. Still, there were parts of the budget that were funded, and the Senate opted to move forward with those while acknowledging the need to come to agreement on the remaining elements in the coming weeks.

The time limit on this special session was set to expire Friday. Lawmakers have been meeting in regular or special sessions since mid-January.

Dunleavy has insisted on a full dividend payout this year, equating to checks of roughly $3,000 each, after three years of reduced payments amid an ongoing budget deficit.

Dividends traditionally have been paid using permanent fund earnings, which lawmakers last year also began using to help pay for government, creating tension. The dividend and use of fund earnings is being discussed by a special working group created by the House and Senate to make recommendations in the hopes of breaking a logjam on that issue.

The House, with a bipartisan majority coalition composed largely of Democrats, rejected a full payout Wednesday. The Republican-led Senate narrowly rejected a full payout after earlier including one in its version of the state operating budget. Giessel has said members of her majority expressed willingness to support a full dividend if the formula were changed going forward.

During the special session, lawmakers passed legislation aimed at addressing crime concerns and a state operating budget.

A law passed last year says that if a state operating budget is not passed by the 121st day the Legislature is in session, lawmakers cannot collect an allowance until the budget passes. But the director of Legislative Legal Services, Megan Wallace, said it does not prevent the Legislative Council from authorizing retroactive payments.

The 121st day, the last day of the regular session, was May 15. The special session started May 16. The budget passed Monday.

The Legislative Council on Thursday authorized retroactive payments of allowances to lawmakers for days they were in Juneau for the special session before the operating budget passed.

The council's chairman, Sen. Gary Stevens, said lawmakers can decide if they want to claim the $302-a-day allowance. Juneau legislators aren't eligible for the allowance.