Alaska House adjourns legislative session without budget vote; special session to begin

Members of the House may vote on a Senate-passed budget bill as soon as Thursday morning, but disagreements may bring a long special session

By: - May 17, 2023 11:22 pm
Speaker of the House Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, talks to fellow members of the Alaska House shortly before adjournment on Wednesday, May 17, 2023. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

Speaker of the House Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, talks to fellow members of the Alaska House on Wednesday, May 17, 2023. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

The Alaska House of Representatives failed to vote on the state’s budget bill Wednesday night and abruptly ended the state’s regular legislative session Wednesday night, defying a “take-it-or-leave-it” offer from the Alaska Senate.

The failure to pass a budget, the Legislature’s central constitutional duty, caused Gov. Mike Dunleavy to order a 30-day special session beginning at 10 a.m. Thursday morning in Juneau.

Without agreement before July 1, the start of the state’s fiscal year, state services may shut down for the first time.

The House’s adjournment on Wednesday happened after some representatives refused to waive a rule that requires a 24-hour waiting period before a budget vote. Senators had passed their version of the budget to the House about 6 p.m., fewer than three hours before the House planned to vote.

“Going from 6 o’clock to 8 o’clock, that’s two hours. That’s not enough time to take a look at a budget that we got from the Senate … we didn’t even have an opportunity to weigh in on,” said Speaker of the House Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla. 

“So I feel like it was an appropriate thing to allow the members the opportunity to have the time to take a look at that budget,” she said.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage and chair of the Senate Rules committee, said that if lawmakers are ready to pick up where they left off, the House could vote as soon as Thursday morning.

“I respect their decision to hold it over for the night,” he said. “That’s what the uniform rules say. And it would have been nice to get it done tonight, but we’ll be back tomorrow.”

House Minority Leader Calvin Schrage, I-Anchorage, said he expects that to happen.

“Technically, we do have a rule that says we should wait 24 hours. Yes, it’s the legislators’ discretion to waive those rules, but I think there’s just a lack of comfort with that. So by adjourning and having the governor call a special session, we’ll still be able to vote the budget, just in a slightly more procedurally smooth method,” he said.

That vote isn’t guaranteed, and even if it takes place, it’s not certain that the House will agree with a budget drafted in large part by the Senate. That document differs significantly from a prior version preferred by the House’s governing majority. 

It includes both the operating and capital budget, which traditionally were passed in separate bills. While the House passed a version of the operating budget that funds state agencies and services, it hadn’t examined the capital budget, which funds construction of roads and buildings.

If the House fails to approve the Senate budget bill, an action known as concurrence, both House and Senate will appoint members to a six-person committee tasked with writing a compromise budget.

For weeks, House and Senate negotiators have already been doing that work informally, with senators saying they were prepared to amend their budget in response to requests from the House.

But final-days negotiations between the House and Senate, including a marathon session Tuesday night that was arranged by Dunleavy, failed to bridge a gap that House legislators said was caused by the Senate’s failure to follow the typical budget process.

“We had conversations last night; there was never an agreement reached,” Wielechowski said, an assessment echoed by Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage and chair of the House Rules Committee.

Senators attributed the breakdown to the House’s insistence on an unbalanced budget that required spending from savings.

The supermajority vote needed to spend from savings failed in the House and also lacked needed support in the Senate. Senators said that made the House’s plan impossible.

“To my mind, what we arrived at was a reasonable and responsible budget. I’m proud of that,” said Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak.

The Senate’s budget includes $6.1 billion in spending, including a Permanent Fund dividend of about $1,300 per recipient. If fee-funded programs and federal funding are added, the total budget would be about $14.4 billion.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Senate made several amendments to its budget, making small additions and subtractions that senators believed were in line with what the House majority wanted.

One of the more significant changes: If oil prices (and thus state revenue) are higher than forecast, some of the windfall will be earmarked for an additional PFD-like payment of up to $500. That would be paid in 2024.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, leaves the Senate chambers on Wednesday, May 17, 2023. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

“We were waiting for some direction from them about whether or not this would be something that they could agree to as a caucus,” Wielechowski said of the Republican-led House majority. “They never came to us and said we have an agreement. But this was a good-faith effort on our part to try to put something forward that we felt reflected the concerns of their caucus.”

He and other senators said they don’t know if the House will concur with the Senate budget, and multiple members of the House said they themselves don’t know if there are sufficient votes.

Members of the 16-person, predominantly Democratic, House minority caucus have offered comments in support of the Senate budget. If all of the minority lawmakers vote to concur, five votes from the 23-person majority and nonaligned Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, would be required.

Just in my experience, once you go into a special session, they don’t tend to end quickly. They tend to go pretty close to 30 days.

– Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage

Some subsequent procedural votes require supermajorities, which could make the task of agreement even more difficult.

Without agreement, the new special session will be consumed by the need to negotiate a compromise budget, Wielechowski predicted.

“Just in my experience, once you go into a special session, they don’t tend to end quickly. They tend to go pretty close to 30 days,” he said.


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James Brooks
James Brooks

James Brooks is a longtime Alaska reporter, having previously worked at the Anchorage Daily News, Juneau Empire, Kodiak Mirror and Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. A graduate of Virginia Tech, he is married to Caitlyn Ellis, owns a house in Juneau and has a small sled dog named Barley. He can be contacted at [email protected].