Legislature starts fifth special session with no clear path forward

The 29th Alaska Legislature on Monday began its fifth special session since the gavel first sounded in January 2015, but lawmakers appear uncertain on their path forward and unsure even what the next few days will bring.

Gov. Bill Walker called the special session in an attempt to balance the state’s multibillion-dollar deficit. On the agenda is a measure passed by the Senate during the fourth special session to use some of the earnings of the Alaska Permanent Fund for state services. The measure died in the House Finance Committee without reaching a vote of the full House.

Also on the agenda are a variety of tax increases covering gasoline, mining, fishing and more.

There’s an income tax bill (which lacks even marginal support in the Legislature) and for the first time, a proposal for a state sales tax.

The sales tax proposal would institute a 3 percent tax but exempt groceries, real estate (including rent) and wages. According to figures from the Alaska Department of Revenue, the tax would raise about $500 million per year.

The special session follows almost $1.3 billion in budget vetoes from Walker, who cut the annual Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend from an expected $2,000 to $1,000.

Soon after the Senate began work Monday morning, Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, asked the Senate to call a joint session with the House for the purpose of overriding Walker’s vetoes on the Dividend and education funding.

Wielechowski’s request was thrown out by Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole and the temporary Senate president in the absence of regular Senate President Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage.

Coghill said it is traditional for the House to call a special session, and though he admitted the request was not against the rules, he said it was out of order.

The ruling was upheld in a 14-3 vote of senators along Senate majority/minority lines.

“I think this probably killed it,” Wielechowski said of the chance of a veto override.

According to Article 2, Section 16 of the Alaska Constitution, the Legislature has five days from the start of the special session to override any Walker veto.

Wielechowski believes Monday’s action won’t give the Senate enough time to meet that deadline.

Coghill disagreed. If the House calls a joint session to vote on a veto override, the Senate can join in.

“It would be better for it to come from the House,” Coghill said. “It’s better for us to allow the House time and latitude to move.”

In the past year, the House has been much more divided than the Senate on the issue of cuts to the deficit and new revenue that would offset spending. Forty-five of the Legislature’s 60 members are required to override a fiscal veto.

By the end of the business day Monday, the House had not yet decided whether to call for a joint session to vote on a veto override. The House had also not decided whether to renew work on bills left at the end of the fourth special session. The alternative is to start from scratch, a much more lengthy process.

The Senate Finance Committee is expected to meet Wednesday in an Anchorage field hearing to discuss a bill proposing to close a loophole in the state’s system of oil and gas drilling subsidies.

The Senate remains convened in Juneau, Coghill said, and lawmakers will return to the capital city for all floor votes. The House is holding committee hearings and floor sessions in Juneau.

James Brooks is a reporter for the Juneau Empire. He can be reached at james.k.brooks@juneauempire.com.