Alaska Legislature adjourns after passing priority bills, but not without a last-hour struggle

By: James Brooks, Claire Stremple and Yereth Rosen, Alaska Beacon

Members of the Alaska House’s minority caucus huddle for a conversation on Wednesday, May 15, 2024, during a break in the House floor session. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

The 33rd Alaska State Legislature came to a shuddering but active end early Thursday morning as lawmakers passed the state’s annual budget and a series of high-profile bills addressing crime, climate change, the looming Cook Inlet energy crunch, and problems with the state’s correspondence education programs.

“I think it was a great session,” said Speaker of the House Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla. “We’ve taken care of energy … we were able to take care of the correspondence folks. And we had a great crime bill that we passed. So I think it was a great session. We got a lot done for the people of Alaska.”

“It’s been a pretty successful two years, I believe, in so many ways,” said Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak.

While legislators met their short-term goals, they didn’t hit some lawmakers’ big targets, including a long-term plan to bring state finances into order, significant changes to the state education system or a revival of a pension for state employees

While the budget includes a one-time increase in school funding, legislators didn’t permanently raise the per-student school funding formula, known as the base student allocation.

“It’s been a good session. I’m proud of the team,” said House Minority Leader Calvin Schrage, I-Anchorage, “and at the same time, obviously, there’s some missed opportunities — from defined benefits to the elections bill that we just had on the floor, the statutory increase to the BSA. I think those were all things that Alaskans were really clamoring for, and it’s disappointing to see that we weren’t able to take action.”

The state Senate adjourned at 11:47 p.m., shortly before the Legislature’s midnight deadline, but the House continued working, passing five bills in the first 15 minutes after the deadline despite questions about whether it was legal to do so.

When the House’s minority caucus attempted to bring up an elections bill as the sixth item after midnight, the majority caucus attempted to adjourn the House. Four members of the majority joined the minority in voting down the motion to adjourn. 

Discussions over how to end the session then dragged on.

“What we have done right now, in the last 30 minutes, is one of the most disrespectful and terrible things I’ve ever seen done to our Constitution,” said Rep. Kevin McCabe, R-Big Lake, speaking about the attempts to hear the elections bill.

McCabe’s House Bill 29 was one of the five bills passed after midnight, at his request. 

House Majority Leader Dan Saddler, R-Eagle River (left), and Rep. Will Stapp, R-Fairbanks, try to convince Rep. Jesse Sumner, R-Wasilla, to vote in favor of adjournment early Thursday, May 16, 2024. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
House Majority Leader Dan Saddler, R-Eagle River (left), and Rep. Will Stapp, R-Fairbanks, try to convince Rep. Jesse Sumner, R-Wasilla, to vote in favor of adjournment early Thursday, May 16, 2024. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

Reps. Jesse Sumner, R-Wasilla; CJ McCormick, D-Bethel; Neal Foster, D-Nome; and Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, voting with the minority, defeated three motions to adjourn before Sumner switched his vote about 1:22 a.m.

He declined comment when asked why he voted the way he did, but other lawmakers who voted against adjournment said they wanted to vote on the elections bill before ending the two-year legislative session.

The last 90 minutes soured what had been a productive day for lawmakers, who passed dozens of bills before adjourning. Those will be transmitted to Gov. Mike Dunleavy in the coming weeks and months, and the governor may veto them, sign them into law, or allow them to become law without his signature.

The biggest bill to pass the Legislature on Wednesday was the state’s annual operating budget, a $6 billion document that funds state services for the 12 months beginning July 1. If federal and fee-funded programs are included, the budget exceeds $11.3 billion.

Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, Senate Majority Leader Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, and Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, watch the House work to finish business from Stevens' office on May 15, 2024. The House did not adjourn until 1:22 a.m. (Photo by Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon)
Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, Senate Majority Leader Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, and Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, watch the House work to finish business from Stevens’ office on May 15, 2024. The House did not adjourn until 1:22 a.m. (Photo by Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon)

A separate capital budget for construction and renovation projects, passed earlier this month, includes more than $4 billion in federal and state spending. 

Dunleavy may eliminate or reduce items in either budget using his line-item veto power. 

The operating budget includes a Permanent Fund dividend estimated to be $1,655 per recipient, which Rep. DeLena Johnson, R-Palmer, called a “healthy check,” though she also said that she wished it was higher.

It also includes $175 million in bonus funding for K-12 public schools, equal to a one-time, $680 increase to the base student allocation, core of the state’s per-student funding formula. 

There are additional one-time increases for pupil transportation and reading efforts for children in kindergarten through third grade.

Rep. CJ McCormick, D-Bethel, leans back in his chair as the House continues to vote on bills after the midnight deadline, early Thursday, May 16, 2024. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
Rep. CJ McCormick, D-Bethel, leans back in his chair as the House continues to vote on bills after the midnight deadline, early Thursday, May 16, 2024. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

Temporary correspondence education fix passes House, Senate

Because unpassed legislation dies at the end of the two-year legislative cycle, the last day was filled with maneuvering that saw bills combined into one another in an attempt to secure passage.

The result was frequently arcane and sometimes bizarre. In one case, a bill extending the state’s marijuana control board was merged with at least five other pieces of legislation, ultimately becoming something that offers businesses a tax credit if they spend money on education.

A bill that requires schools to stock overdose reversal drugs was amended with a compromise measure to stabilize correspondence education programs after a court ruling struck down parts of state law governing the spending of financial allotments distributed through the program. More than 22,000 students are enrolled in the programs.

The correspondence issue has been a major issue for the governor and legislators, who voted unanimously in the House and Senate to pass the compromise bill. 

The new law directs Alaska’s Board of Education and Early Development to write temporary regulations to stabilize the program and includes a requirement that the Department of Education and Early Development start monitoring allotment spending for the first time in a decade.

Early in the legislative session, lawmakers passed a multipart education bill that included a permanent increase to the amount of per-student funding for public schools, but after Dunleavy vetoed that bill, legislators were unable to negotiate a replacement before the session ended.

Sen. Robert Myers, R-North Pole, listens to Sen. Loki Tobin, D-Anchorage, talk about an amendment dealing with correspondence programs, on Wednesday, May 15, 2024. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
Sen. Robert Myers, R-North Pole, listens to Sen. Löki Tobin, D-Anchorage, talk about an amendment dealing with correspondence programs, on Wednesday, May 15, 2024. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

Two big energy bills cross the legislative finish line

Energy legislation was a priority for Dunleavy, as well as legislators in the House and Senate. Lawmakers have known for years that the supply of available natural gas in Cook Inlet is running low, and legislators believe that they needed to act this year to attempt to reverse the downward trend.

On the last day of the session, lawmakers approved House Bill 307, which reforms the Railbelt electric transmission system and paves the way for easier shipment of renewable energy along the line from Homer to Fairbanks.

Hydropower from Bradley Lake on the Kenai Peninsula is one of the cheapest sources of electricity available on the Railbelt, but the cost to ship that power through several regional utilities can be prohibitive.

HB 307 reduces the added charges that can result from long-distance power transfers and restructures the way the regional utilities interact.

Members of the Senate discuss the transmission bill on May 15, 2024. (Photo by Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon)
Members of the Senate and staff discuss the transmission bill on May 15, 2024. (Photo by Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon)

Separately, the House and Senate passed House Bill 50, which was originally introduced by the Dunleavy administration to set rules for the new carbon storage industry, which involves the injection of carbon dioxide deep underground to avoid the effects that gas has on global climate change.

HB 50 was subsequently amended several times to deal with the regulation of natural gas storage, geothermal energy, and other items relevant to the pending Southcentral energy crunch.

The state Senate rejected and did not pass a separate House bill that would have reduced the royalty rates that gas drillers pay the state for natural gas extracted from Cook Inlet. 

Members of the House supported the bill, but senators said they lacked independent analysis of the economics.

Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage, listens to Rep. Mike Cronk, R-Tok, during a break in the House floor session Wednesday, May 15, 2024. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage, listens to Rep. Mike Cronk, R-Tok, during a break in the House floor session Wednesday, May 15, 2024. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

Crime law also a priority

Lawmakers passed an omnibus crime bill built around Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposal to increase penalties for fentanyl and methamphetamine dealers. 

“The Senate added several crime bills that we did hear in this body, making it a crime package,” said Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer and chair of the House Judiciary Committee. 

Vance said under the bill, if someone deals drugs to a person who dies of an overdose, “We are going to take it seriously, and you will be charged for murder.”

The revised bill included one of her priorities, changing the term “child pornography” in state law to “child sexual abuse material.”

Among its many provisions, the bill directs the state to look into why minority groups are overrepresented in state prisons and make recommendations to reduce the number of people who commit crimes after being released from prison. 

The bill allows police officers to summarize crime-victim statements in grand-jury proceedings. Vance said that forcing a crime victim to testify to a grand jury increased the risk that they would be retraumatized by the experience.

A bipartisan compromise made it a Class B felony to induce someone into sex trafficking by withholding drugs or a passport, in an effort to clamp down on the rise of that crime. 

Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, supported the last-minute amendment: “This is a sickness on the planet,” he said. “I say throw the book at ‘em!”

Rep. Will Stapp, R-Fairbanks, looks at his staff in the House gallery after a vote on Wednesday, May 15, 2024. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
Rep. Will Stapp, R-Fairbanks, looks at his staff in the House gallery after a vote on Wednesday, May 15, 2024. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)