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Legislature hones in on budget issues

Skip Gray / 360 North

House puts everything but the budget on hold for now, and House and Senate minorities propose unity government. 

KDLG transcript: The Alaska Legislature took an unusual step Monday to focus members' efforts and political energy on the state's budget deficit. The House Majority introduced House Concurrent Resolution 23, which essentially tables everything but bills related to “appropriating, raising, or allocating state revenue," until the Legislature passes an operating budget.

HCR 23 went into effect after it passed by a vote of 38-1 in the House. 

“What I was seeing, as a member of the House Finance Committee, was a lot of things taking place, but no real common thread, in terms of the House in particular stepping up to the enormity of the budget challenge that we have in front of us," said Rep. Bryce Edgmon, who was credited with pushing the idea in the House. "With almost a month now gone by in session, we were just sort of plodding along day by day, clearly to what would have been another sort of train wreck at the end of session, much like we had last year.”

Edgmon cites the budget decisions to be made this year as tougher than perhaps ever before, at least that he can recall. This is also an election year. He says the rule changes with HCR 23 will help keep the divided attention span of the Legislative body honed in where it ought to be.

“Now we have the opportunity to just focus primarily on the budget for the next two to three weeks, and do everything we can possibly can to make some very very tough decisions," he said. "Both on the reduction of the budget side of the equation, as well as the new revenues side that we need to look at.”

(Rep. Edgmon joined the KDLG Legislative Call-In show Tuesday, listen here.)

Meanwhile, the House and Senate Minorities proposed creating a Caucus of the Whole in the Legislature. 

“Rep. Chris Tuck and Sen. Berta Gardiner said that if we’re going to get through this session, with a $3.6 billion budget deficit, we need to do it in a bipartisan way," said Rep. Les Gara (D-Anchorage) on Monday. "So they proposed a bipartisan caucus to run the legislature for the rest of the year, so one party doesn’t block the other party’s bills, just out of partisanship.”

Credit Skip Gray / 360 North
Members of the Alaska House and Senate minorities propose a single caucus system for the legislature, Feb. 8, 2016.

Republicans hold sizeable majorities in the House and Senate, and members of the majority caucus hold hold leadership positions. While the Democrats do not have enough votes to block most bills, they can prevent the legislature from drawing out of the Constitutional Budget Reserve, the primary savings account to cover deficits. Drawing from the CBR requires support of three quarters of the legislature. 

Clearing that roadblock may be the only pragmatic reason the Republicans would entertain sharing power in a unity government.

Gara said, in his mind, governing together would be a practical way to meet the historical challenges.

“I think what I would expect is that they drop their ideological predispositions, we drop our ideological predispositions, and we compromise on a plan to fill a $3.6, $3.7 billion budget hole," said Gara. "In a way that’s fair to everybody -- not just fair to the rich, not just fair to corporations, but fair to everybody.”

Theletter from Sen. Gardiner and Rep. Tuck was received with interest by Republican leadership in the House and Senate.

The House canceled all hearings on bills that weren’t related to the budget Monday.