As the final two regular weeks begin, Alaska lawmakers narrow their focus • Alaska Beacon

Dozens of firefighters protested outside the Alaska Capitol last week, waving signs and chanting as they urged the Alaska House of Representatives to advance a long-simmering pension bill.

You will probably be disappointed.

On Friday, the House of Representatives failed by a vote of 19 to 19 to submit the pension bill for further consideration.

As the Alaska Legislature enters the final two weeks of its regular session, lawmakers are concentrating their attention on a handful of issues, combining bills that address specific issues into larger “omnibus” legislation that includes several smaller bills, which are all combined into one making it quicker and easier to share them together.

“In the best world, you wouldn't do this, but it's not unusual at all,” said Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage and chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, which plans bills for floor votes.

Lawmakers have already introduced omnibus bills on energy issues, education and crime. An election-related omnibus bill is expected soon, and debate on the state's annual budget proposals is expected to continue until the end of the session.

Many non-controversial bills, such as renaming bridges or expanding state offices, are expected to pass before the Legislature adjourns, but when it comes to big policy changes, lawmakers say there isn't much certainty.

“My concern is primarily with the time we have left and the problems that lie ahead,” said Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak. “We will do our best in the remaining time.”

On the budget

The Alaska Senate will deliver its version of Alaska's state budget starting Wednesday. Also because the Senate is governed by a bipartisan supermajority, few, if any, amendments are approved. The majority's priorities have already been incorporated into the current version of the bill.

The Senate budget proposal contains: a lower dividend from the Permanent Fund — about $1,580 per recipient — than the $2,270 PFD proposed in the House budget bill.

The numbers are the biggest difference between the two proposals, and the Senate's smaller PFD is intended to close an estimated $270 million gap in the House's draft comprehensive spending plan, said Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka.

Stedman said the House failed to take into account the size of the state budget — which funds construction and renovation projects across the state — and the cost of other legislation passed or being passed by the Legislature this year.

If the Senate budget bill passes this week, lawmakers will set up a conference committee to work out a compromise between the House and Senate spending plans.

This compromise will have many political implications. For example, the Senate version of the budget defunds the state-owned company responsible for licensing and building a trans-Alaska natural gas pipeline. The House version includes funding for the company.

The latest numbers from the Legislative Finance Division estimate there will be a $113 million surplus at the end of the current fiscal year, June 30, and that money could be redirected to services in the final compromise version of the budget between July 1, 2024 and June 30, 2025.

Energy legislation

Since the start of this year's legislative session, the predominantly Republican coalition majority of the Alaska House of Representatives has said legislation to address the looming energy crisis in south-central Alaska is their top priority.

With two weeks to go, no energy bill has passed, and lawmakers in the House and Senate are considering tax incentives for natural gas producers in Cook Inlet, bills that would streamline natural gas storage in south-central Alaska and bills that would change the rules for electricity used in Alaska's Railbelt network is transferred from one utility to another.

Also on the agenda are bills that address community solar projects, geothermal energy and rules for injecting carbon dioxide underground.

Many of these topics could be combined over the past two weeks, House Speaker Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, told reporters last week.

“I think that’s generally how it will be,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, said she believes the carbon dioxide bill that the House has already passed is a priority for Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

If this bill, seen as a boon for the oil and gas industry, is not passed during the regular session of the House, she believes it would call lawmakers into a special session on the issue.

Education Bills

At the start of this year's legislative session, leaders of the Alaska Senate's coalition majority — made up of nine Democrats and eight Republicans — said education reform, including greater funding for public schools, was a top priority.

After Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed a Senate-approved bill that passed with bipartisan support — and after House Republicans overrode a veto — the House was left with an overwhelmingly Republican majority has advanced an alternativeknown as House Bill 392.

This bill incorporates priorities advanced by the Governor and House Republicans, including changes to the way charter schools are authorized.

If that bill moves forward — it is currently in the House Finance Committee — it could also adopt one of two bills aimed at fixing problems with the state's distance learning program.

A state judge last month struck down two state laws governing the programThat leaves parents of more than 22,000 students uncertain about whether they will receive government reimbursements for some of their expenses.

Members of the state House of Representatives and Senate have introduced separate fixesand both bills are expected to be introduced in the final two weeks of the session.

Even if no education bill is passed, both the House and Senate budget bills include a one-time increase in the state's per-pupil funding formula for public schools, with the exact amount of the increase subject to Dunleavy's veto power.

Criminal law legislation

On Monday, Sen. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said announced that he would amend the anti-fentanyl legislation supported by Gov. Mike Dunleavy to include several other legislative priorities related to crime.

Johnson last week called the fentanyl law “essential” and said it was also important to close a loophole in the law that allows people to avoid being placed on the state's sex offender list.

Both points were included in the Senate bill.

House Bill 259, which establishes the Human and Sex Trafficking Council, is a priority of House Judiciary Chairwoman Sarah Vance, R-Homer, she said last week, as is legislation that would rename child pornography in ” Child Sexual Abuse Material” changes.

The name change is included in the Senate omnibus but not in HB 259. Vance said she is trying to include human trafficking issues in the bill.

Another change with support from the House and Senate is a bill that would allow crime victims to testify before a grand jury without having to appear in person. The hearsay exception avoids re-traumatizing these victims, lawmakers say.

Electoral legislation

The House of Representatives agreed in February an invoice This would allow the Alaska Division of Elections to trim the state's voter rolls more quickly.

The Senate State Affairs Committee, led by Sen. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, is preparing to turn this House bill into an electoral omnibus, Wielechowski said, “putting together some components that have been discussed over the years in this body.” have been intensively investigated.” I think that’s pretty undisputed.”

A Kawasaki official said the bill's hearing is scheduled for Thursday. He declined to say what components might be included, but the committee has previously considered several topics, including the idea of ​​ballot “curing,” which would allow Alaska residents to correct an incorrect signature on a mail-in ballot, so that it is counted.


Anna Harden

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