SESSION SUMMARY: Legislative Context and Process
Norm Wooten, AASB Advocacy Director
AASB Advocacy Director Norm Wooten began his presentation by emphasizing the importance of legislative advocacy by school boards this session. He said he is tracking 88 different education-related bills, about twice as many as are normally introduced in a typical legislative session.
He discussed the impact COVID-19 has had on the legislative process this session, specific safety protocols that have put in place to avoid an outbreak in the Capitol building. He also provided an overview of progress being made in the House and Senate, some distractions that have impeded that progress, state budget funding options, and some of the likely outcomes of the session.
COVID-19 has had a significant effect on how the session is conducted this year. Both bodies are taking “hard line” enforcement of Legislative Council COVID protective measures. The Legislative Council has implemented safety protocols including, closing the capitol building to all but legislators, staff and a limited number of press. CDC approved face masks and daily temperature checks are required and all Capitol personnel must undergo testing every 4-5 days. To limit exposure and spread, the Council has requested that legislators and staff to limit travel outside of Juneau.
These protocols have had some glitches. The House shut down all committee meetings for two days due to exposure, and there have been 7 positive tests and 22 close contacts, including one hospitalization. One legislator was barred from common spaces, floor, & committee rooms due to a refusal to wear a CDC approved mask. Another was asked to leave the floor for a refusing to wear a mask. There is a high level of concern among leadership over the possibility of an outbreak. In preparation for an outbreak, the Senate has passed a concurrent resolution to suspend Uniform Rules to permit virtual attendance at hearings and floor sessions.
The Senate organized immediately following the start of the session. Committees are meeting and bills are being heard. Senate leadership wants to have the budget finalized as early as possible. The Senate Finance Committee has been working toward this goal, having nearly completed their in-depth review of various budget components. Subcommittees are well into their hearings on administration budgets.
The challenges are the Constitutional Budget Reserve (CBR), Earnings Reserve (ER), Permanent Fund, a sustainable draw on the PF (Percent of Market Value, or POMV) a source of revenue, as well as developing new sources of revenue. Almost two thirds of the Operating Budget is derived from the Permanent Fund, rather than from oil revenue. It is likely that some of these issues may be put aside to work on after this session has concluded.
The House took 31 days to organize, which put their work behind. Having 10 freshmen members has exacerbated their inability to accomplish meaningful work. The Finance Committee is far behind in their examination of the budget. Typically, the House passes the Operation Budget for consideration and the Senate does the same for the Capital Budget. That may not work this session. The House Finance Committee Subcommittees are meeting on a full schedule – which has limited standing committee work.
There have been a number of recent events that have distracted legislators from focusing on their work:
- Capitol personnel contraction of COVID and exposure to those infected.
- A recalcitrant Senator’s refusal to abide by Legislative Council COVID-19 protocols.
- Difficulty of House organization.
- Non-binding Senate majority caucus.
- House majority (15D’s, 2R’s, 4N/A’s) Minority (18R’s) 1 caucus of 1R.
- “Sense of the House” motion over Rep. Fields comments for Rep. Rasmussen’s birthday.
The “Glass Half Full” Story
Senate Finance has held public hearings earlier than normal on three major appropriation bills (Operations, Capital, Mental Health). Senate Finance & House Finance Subcommittees are well along on their review of department budgets. Both bodies know they are behind and are committed to soon begin weekend and late evening meetings to speed up progress. Budget work is now moving rapidly.
The “Glass Half Empty” Story
Will the legislature wrap up the budget and adjourn? Doesn’t seem to be much policy work in progress. Doubtful that much progress will be made during the session on a sustainable budget. If new revenue is not addressed during the first session, the topic would need to be addressed during the 2nd session, which would be an election year—not the time to be addressing new revenue, i.e. taxes. It may be unavoidable because they can’t keep delaying this discussion. The earnings receive is almost depleted, and the Constitutional Budget Reserve (CBR) is close to nonexistent. The only option would be to make a draw on the permanent fund beyond the legal limit of the Percent of Market Value (POMV), which would put the Permanent Fund in jeopardy in future years and eat up our savings.