What if the Alaska Legislature convened a special session, and many lawmakers did not show up?
That was the situation on Friday, Oct. 8, when the Senate adjourned after only a trio of lawmakers were present — Sens. Scott Kawasaki of Fairbanks, Gary Stevens of Kodiak and Mia Costello of Anchorage.
The session had only been underway for a week. “I was there on the first day, and there was barely a quorum to conduct any business. We adjourned until Friday where I was one of three members present,” Kawasaki said.
The fourth special session is scheduled to end Tuesday. But for some lawmakers, the special session may have ended weeks before that.
Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy blasted the Legislature Monday.
“The Legislature has done nothing. The product that will come out of this session is zero,” Dunleavy told the News-Miner.
Interior lawmakers interviewed expressed disappointment in the outcome but say they are looking to the next regular session, which starts in January 2022.
“The Senate was not able to get together at all, as Sen. Kawasaki said, and most of that is due to instability and internal disagreements within the Senate,” Rep. Grier Hopkins said Monday.
“The House met every time we needed to read across bills, and have held numerous meetings in various committees,” Hopkins said.
Sen. Kawasaki: Bills ‘locked down’
Kawasaki, a Democrat, pointed to bills “locked down by committee chairs” or previously defeated as a reason for the inaction in Juneau.
“There wasn’t much of an appetite to have any special session in October by leadership and going to Juneau just to spin our wheels wouldn’t accomplish anything without them,” he said. “I’m disappointed.”
Gov. Mike Dunleavy added an appropriations bill that would have funded a higher Permanent Fund Dividend payment, but there was a lack of consensus to advance it.
Kawasaki said he saw the most work accomplished on fiscal issues in July and August, when a bi-partisan fiscal work group met to discuss policy making.
Kawasaki, who was a member of the group, said lawmakers came up with proposals for new revenues, preserving Power Cost Equalization subsidies to offset high rural electricity rates, and ensuring “a stable PFD that would be placed in the Constitution.”
“I personally passed legislation and the governor signed a bill in September to help military spouses with licensure, so that they can find jobs in town during a challenging time to find workers,” Kawasaki said of his most recent accomplishments.
Rep. LeBon: ‘Fourth special session accomplished little’
Rep. Bart LeBon, a Fairbanks Republican, offered a similar assessment of the special session.
“The fourth special session accomplished little by way of measurable results,” he said in an email Monday. The session lacked “legislative buy-in” to succeed, he said.
“The final outcome will reflect my belief that it was destined to fail without meaningful legislative buy-in,” LeBon said. He anticipates that the full Legislature will take up fiscal issues identified by the governor when it convenes in January.
LeBon identified major issues that he expects to see on the legislative agenda in 2022. Those issues include finding consensus on balancing state spending between agency budgets and the Permanent Fund Dividend program.
He listed questions that lawmakers need to address: “Do we pass a broad-based tax to help pay a larger PFD? If so, what type of tax and how does it interact with any proposed rewrite of the PFD formula?” he said.
“And what level of state spending meets the reasonable needs and wants of a majority of Alaskans?”
Rep. Hopkins: ‘Senate failing to meet’
Hopkins noted inaction during the most recent special session, with many lawmakers no-shows.
“This fourth special session went about as well as most expected, with the Senate failing to meet and the governor failing to put forward any plans of consequence,” Hopkins said.
Hopkins, a Fairbanks Democrat, also expressed concern that some elected officials “won’t take bold action” when the Legislature convenes in January, because 2022 is an election year.
“But if we’re able to put our re-election plans aside, it’s amazing what we can accomplish, if we don’t care who gets the credit,” he said.
Hopkins noted that policy discussions in House committee meetings prepared lawmakers for the next regular session.
“In the House committees that heard all the bills referred to them, we did have very good conversations,” he said, “and that will hopefully launch us into good work in the upcoming session, as we work to put Alaska on the right path.”
Overall, Hopkins was pleased that his legislation received attention. It called for protecting the Permanent Fund dividend in the state Constitution and providing for “a durable spending cap option.”
“I plan to re-introduce much of that package in the upcoming session,” Hopkins said.
“This process will take us a lot of work and compromise,” he said, warning that “drawing hard, partisan lines is not going to get us anywhere.”
As Hopkins anticipates the next regular session, he will emphasize educator retention and recruitment as “we look to improve our schools, and I have work in line for that issue.”
Hopkins plans to work with Alaska’s military to “support their families coming to Fairbanks; our long term economic outlook relies on it.”
Alaska military leaders recently identified a housing shortage in the Fairbanks area as a factor that is keeping the families of service members from moving here.
“Next session will be a busy one, but I look forward to working on large issues with my colleagues,” Hopkins said.
Sen. Myers: There was ‘utter disdain for any attempt to end the gridlock'
Sen. Robert Myers said he saw “no accomplishments for the special session.”
But Myers, a North Pole Republican, blamed the Senate Finance Committee for “utter distain for any attempt to end the gridlock and find a long-term solution.”
“As a whole, and especially the co-chairs, they seem to be interested in only the status quo of keeping the government spending where it is and taking the dividend to pay for it.”
Myers is not hopeful for improvement in 2022. “I don’t expect any of that to change in the next regular session,” he said.
Myers added that he believes Alaska needs a constitutional convention. “We need to answer much larger questions than the Legislature addresses. We are in much different circumstances than we were at statehood, and our Constitution needs to reflect that,” he said.
Rep. Wool: Special session was a 'nothing burger'
"Quite frankly, the 4th special session was a 'nothing burger,' which considering our appetite for taking up the governor's agenda, is just fine with me and many of my colleagues," Rep. Adam Wool, a Fairbanks Democrat said.
Wool said he had no special agenda or legislation during the special session.
Overall Wool was pleased with the Legislature's work passing a balanced budget and an $1,100 Permanent Fund dividend for Alaskans.
With oil revenues up, Wool said he does not expect to see any legislation advance next session for new revenue streams, including taxes.
"I have some personal legislation I’d like to see passed, such as e-bikes and putting a faculty member on the University of Alaska Board of Regents," Wool said. "But as far as revenue or PFD formula reform, I’m fairly skeptical.
Wool also said he does not agree with Dunleavy's proposed PFD split between paying dividends and funding state services.
"Many of us feel that a 50-50 PFD is too high, even if we currently have the needed revenue," Wool noted. "And many won’t accept anything smaller, such as a 75/25 split, if oil prices are as high as they are now."
Sen. Bishop: ‘Senate, House and governor must work as a team’
Sen. Click Bishop took a more balanced view of work by the Legislature and adoption of the state budget.
“Is it perfect? No. But it’s balanced. It pays for basic services Alaskans want and need, for education, plowing streets, fixing pot holes, public safety, and more,” Bishop said.
“It pays out a Permanent Fund dividend. And it has no new taxes,” he said.
Bishop, a Fairbanks Republican, said it is incumbent on Alaska’s political leaders to “be good stewards of the Permanent Fund and help it grow long into the future.
“We’ve done that this year by following the law that limits how much can be spent to no more than 5% of fund earnings,” Bishop said.
“The law also says the fund should benefit all generations of Alaskans. Not just the current generation, but future ones as well. Following the limit on how much to spend from fund earnings each year gets us there,” he said.
He too urged Alaska’s political leaders to work together, when the Legislature returns in January.
“To get anything significant passed, the Senate, House, and governor must work as a team. That’s what I’m hoping to see when the regular session starts in January and as we work again to pass a balanced budget,” he said.