2017 Session: The Never Ending Story?

By Norm Wooten

AASB Executive Director

For those of us involved with the legislative process on a day-to-day basis it seemed as if the 2017 session would go on forever. Perhaps if we had had to title the session we could use the name of the 1984 fantasy movie, The Never Ending Story?

The first anomaly occurred as both bodies began their reorganization of the 30th Legislature. The House majority organized around a coalition of twenty-two members. With a majority requiring twenty-one, it was a razor-thin majority. The coalition was made up of eighteen Democrats, one Independent (Re. Dan Ortiz) and three Republicans (Rep. Paul Seaton, Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, and Rep. Louise Stutes). Several of the Democrats had previously caucused with the Republican majority. During press conferences and interviews the common theme seemed to be that legislators had heard demands from their constituents to “get the job done” relative to the long-term fiscal plan. The House majority determined that serious consideration would only be given to legislation that related to the fiscal plan.

The Republican majority remained solid and was made up of fourteen Republicans and one Democrat (Rep. Lyman Hoffman) giving a firm majority of fifteen.

The regular session convened on January 17 and there was agreement that the number one priority was to put in place a long-term fiscal plan. Once the plan was in place then the operating budget would could be introduced and debated. However, the solution remained elusive.

During the regular session the major items were the fiscal plan and broadband access. Senate Education introduced an omnibus bill with a wide variety of issues.

The Senate and House majorities had very different ideas on the fiscal solution. These differing ideas ran the gamut and all had their backers. Among these ideas included:

  • A complete overhaul of the oil tax credits;
  • Whether to use a portion of the earnings reserve account to fund government services or whether this was even necessary;
  • Additional reductions to state government agencies;
  • New sources of revenue – including the reinstatement of an income tax as well as other taxes;
  • A proposal out of Senate Finance was for a 5% to 6% reduction to the Base Student Allocation.

The regular session adjourned on May 17 with no agreement on a fiscal plan and no operating budget.   The first special session convened on May 18 and debate continued but little progress was made. The first special session adjourned on June 16.

The second special session convened immediately on June 16 with plans underway by the administration for a state government shutdown at the start of the fiscal year with no operating budget to fund non-essential functions. The conference committee announced a compromise had been reached during the second special session. The big news out of the compromise was that the BSA would be funded at the previous years level.

This compromise was reached with both the House and the Senate making significant concessions. Make no mistake, flat funding is a cut with all the increases in costs at the district level. However, we need to be grateful to the legislature as it certainly could have been devastating had the initial proposals come to fruition. The second special session adjourned on July 15.

Several distractions occurred. Sen. Wielechowski had a pending lawsuit questioning the constitutionality of reducing the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividends. Additionally, Sen. Dunleavy refused to support the operating budget and was removed from the Senate majority caucus as well as being removed from his seat on the Finance Committee.

The third special session convened July 27 with the sole agenda item of a capital budget. This was significant to avoid the loss of matching federal funds. This was quickly accomplished and the session adjourned on July 27.

So what is next? The regular session will convene on January 15, 2018. There will be urgency since there is not enough funding in our savings accounts to fund government at the current level. A fiscal plan will need to be put in place or drastic cuts made to state government. Hopefully the 2018 session will not be the 1990 sequel, The Never Ending Story II – the Next Chapter.

Alaska’s Educational Challenge, the initiative to create transformational change in education is ongoing and scheduled to deliver to the State Board of Education its recommendations in November. It seems likely the Administration might want to forward an omnibus bill to address those recommendations.

AASB is making a number of improvements in the way we provide information to our members and other education supporters. These changes will be readily apparent as the 2018 session begins. We want to provide you with more information in a timely manner.

Education funding remained whole in no small part from the advocacy of school board members, administrators, teachers, parents, community members and education supporters all across Alaska. Education is important to Alaskans who consider it an investment in the future.