Some Alaska House lawmakers stage brief walkout over education funding
Meaningful action on the state budget was brought to a crawl after minority lawmakers objected to new provisions in a school-funding amendment
House Minority Leader Calvin Schrage, I-Anchorage, is surrounded by empty desks in the Alaska House of Representatives on Wednesday, April 5, 2023. Members of the House minority staged an hours-long walkout in protest over an education funding vote on Wednesday. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
Members of the Alaska House’s mostly Democratic minority caucus brought meaningful action on the state budget to a crawl Wednesday after they left the Capitol in protest and raised procedural actions after returning.
They opposed a budget amendment that links a temporary funding increase for public schools with a separate vote needed to use state savings for a budget deficit.
“If funding for our kids’ future education is put in jeopardy, we will go to the mat to make sure that we give education the best chance of getting the most stable funding possible,” said House Minority Leader Calvin Schrage, I-Anchorage.
If the link remains intact and the House minority refuses to vote for spending from the state’s principal savings account, then there wouldn’t be an increase in school funding this year, and there would still be a projected deficit that the Legislature must close.
Schrage said the minority is prepared to “reset” budget progress on Thursday morning without the tactics that disrupted work Wednesday.
The disruption began when the House voted by a 23-17 margin to use $175 million from the state’s Constitutional Budget Reserve to pay for the education funding increase.
Until that point, the increase had been funded from the state’s general-purpose accounts, similar to other core services.
The switch incensed the 16 members of the House’s minority, who voted against it, then fled the Capitol, an act that halted work on the budget.
Members of the minority support the education-funding increase and said they felt like education funding was being held hostage to secure their votes.
“We are holding our kids hostage. We are singling out children,” said Rep. Jennie Armstrong, D-Anchorage.
The Alaska Constitution requires support from 30 of the 40 members of the House to spend from the budget reserve. With only 23 people in the predominantly Republican House majority, minority assent is required.
“This was a bait-and-switch, scorched-earth tactic,” she said.
Schrage denounced the move as an excuse to avoid decisions on a long-term fiscal plan.
“So far, I’ve seen no will from this body, from this majority, to deliver,” he said on the House floor.
For some members of the majority, the protests rang hollow. The House Ways and Means Committee has been repeatedly holding hearings on elements of a long-term fiscal plan, pointed out its chairman, Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski.
An hour before the school-funding amendment, members of the minority supported an amendment that would have linked half of the 2023 Permanent Fund dividend — almost $900 million — to the Constitutional Budget Reserve vote. That amendment failed 16-22.
Since 2014, when legislators began using the budget reserve to balance the state budget on an annual basis, lawmakers have repeatedly linked a reserve vote to other topics in order to secure support.
When a predominantly Democratic coalition controlled the House, members of the majority tied the amount of the Permanent Fund dividend to the reserve vote.
Rep. Mike Prax, R-North Pole, said he recalled that in 2020, COVID-19 response funding was also linked to the vote.
“I don’t think it’s quite accurate to give the impression that this is a new thing. This is just what happens every year because of the CBR,” he said.
Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage, said he considers the new education funding increase to be part of the state’s “base budget” rather than a temporary boost. There’s a distinction between the base budget and the dividend, he said.
“It has been normal to have the additional value of cash payments to citizens be tied to a CBR. But beyond the base budget, it is not normal to hold the base budget hostage for the CBR. And that’s a very key difference,” he said.
On Wednesday, the version of the budget on the House floor contained a deficit of almost $600 million.
Without an abrupt increase in taxes, reductions to the Permanent Fund dividend, or as-yet-unproposed cuts to services, balancing the deficit will require spending from the Constitutional Budget Reserve, which is expected to contain about $2 billion on July 1.
Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, was speaker of the House at the time of the 2020 vote, when the House was controlled by a predominantly Democratic coalition. He’s now a member of the House’s predominantly Republican coalition majority.
On Wednesday, he said there is no alternative to spending from the reserve this year and repeatedly objected to the idea that the majority was trying to turn public school funding into a hostage.
Rep. Neal Foster, D-Nome, served in the old coalition majority and is in the new one alongside Edgmon. He said members of the minority misunderstood what was happening.
“The subtleties of politics are not always obvious,” he said.
The minority was unsubtle in its response: After the majority’s intent became clear, 15 of the minority’s 16 members disappeared from the Capitol for almost four hours and could not be found.
It was an extraordinary action. Legislators in other states have occasionally fled state capitols to prevent progress on legislation they oppose, but those actions are rare in Alaska.
Legislative rules allow the Speaker of the House here to request the Alaska State Troopers physically bring missing lawmakers to the chamber, but that wasn’t needed on Wednesday.
Schrage, who remained in the building, used a procedural rule to halt work until his colleagues returned about 3 p.m. He said they returned because the majority had indicated it would advance work despite the minority’s absence.
Fields and other members of the minority refused to say where they hid, only that it was “nearby” the Capitol.
Outside the building, the AFL-CIO issued a call to action requesting that Alaskans email and call majority lawmakers to ask them to retract the idea of funding the education increase from savings.
After members of the minority returned to the Capitol, they repeatedly raised procedural disputes and took other action that effectively halted work.
Shortly before 6:30 p.m., Speaker of the House Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, adjourned the chamber for the day.
“We were getting to a place where people’s emotions were running pretty darn high. And I felt like it was probably a good opportunity to take time to adjourn,” she said.
Wednesday’s delay could postpone the House’s passage of the budget until after the Easter holiday, but Tilton said on Wednesday night that she would continue to try to pass the budget through the House before then.
Under the worst-case scenario, where the House grinds to a total halt, the Senate could draft its own version of the budget, then send it over to the House for review. The Senate has yet to unveil a draft of the operating budget.
Some members of the Senate majority favor a lower Permanent Fund dividend more in line with the thinking of the House minority, but that outcome isn’t certain.
Rep. Sara Hannan, D-Juneau, said the budget isn’t over until the governor signs it.
“It ain’t over until it’s over, and it’s far from over, friends,” she said.
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