Lawmakers will be back at the Alaska State Capitol, seen here in this file photo, on Aug. 16, and after spending several weeks on background hearings and public testimony, members of the work group say they're ready to get into solutions. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire file)

Fiscal working group readies for policy proposals

After weeks of hearings, group set sights on solutions

Lawmakers spent what would have been the first day of a third special session of the Alaska State Legislature taking public testimony from Alaskans in Juneau and elsewhere.

A special session was initially scheduled to convene on Monday, but lawmakers asked for a delay to allow a bipartisan, bicameral working group to discuss policy solutions to the state’s financial woes, and Gov. Mike Dunleavy pushed back the start of the session by two weeks. The group has so far spent most of its time on informational hearings, but Sen. Jesse Kiehl said Monday the group is ready to discuss proposals for resolving the state’s fiscal deficit.

“It’s time to have those conversations out in public,” said Kiehl, a Juneau Democrat. “We’re pretty determined to get something out ahead of the special session.”

While giving testimony, Alaskans urged lawmakers to alternately cut the state government down in favor of larger Alaska Permanent Fund dividends and to ensure that critical programs continue to be funded. In Anchorage, students from the Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho program at the University of Washington School of Medicine asked lawmakers to continue funding the program as it is Alaska’s only doctor training program. In Wasilla, one woman said she was frustrated smaller PFDs were being distributed despite the Alaska Permanent Fund’s record earnings.

“When I hear government say we can’t possibly cut government, it falls flat for me,” said Jennifer Graham. “It’s actually really frustrating, and I feel like government is kind of looking at the private sector and saying you don’t matter to us.”

Several state residents suggested that by not following the previously used statutory formula lawmakers were stealing Alaskan’s PFD money. One person said if he were governor he would have lawmakers jailed.

“There’s a number of myths about Alaska’s fiscal system, in particular the PFD,” said Cliff Groh, a lawyer and one of the legislative staff members who helped draft the original legislation creating the PFD.

The Alaska Supreme Court has ruled the PFD is an appropriation, Groh said, which makes that the law.

“The Alaska Supreme Court is the supreme arbiter of Alaska law,” Groh said. “There’s no way that I know of to change that unless you change the constitution.”

Groh has worked in and around the Alaska state government for decades and on Tuesday will moderate a Zoom presentation and discussion with Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, and Speaker of the House Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak. According to Groh, the presentation is meant to give a neutral explanation of the state’s fiscal problems and lay out a range of possible options.

Establishing agreement on the state’s financial situation is a challenge the working group itself has had to face. The group spent many of its early meetings hearing presentations from the state’s financial experts and only recently started to hear ideas for resolving the situation. Groh works for nonpartisan think tank Alaska Common Ground, which he said is trying to draw together as many people with differing views as possible.

“Having listened to all that testimony, the kind of people who come out to testify for three minutes may be a skewed sample,” Groh said. “You’re going to have more extreme voices and passionate people.”

The group met every day last week after members of the Republican House Minority complained about the slow pace of the meeting calendar, but currently the group has only four meetings scheduled before the start of the next session.

Ahead of the Monday evening public testimony session, Kiehl said that despite the sometimes extreme rhetoric heard in the sessions, public testimony is always useful.

“Sometimes it adds insights, sometimes it makes people angry, but listening to the public always has value,” Kiehl said.

Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.

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