By BECKY BOHRER
The Associated Press
JUNEAU — Alaska lawmakers on Tuesday convened a regular legislative session expected to focus on addressing the state’s multibillion-dollar budget deficit.
While the scheduled 90-day session is expected to be dominated by debate on the budget, Tuesday was a day for ceremony, with lawmakers being sworn in to office by Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott.
Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, was elected speaker, with Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, the lone dissenting vote. Eastman said that while he respects Edgmon, he committed to his constituents that he would only consider candidates for House leadership who are anti-abortion and who had publicly committed to passing a sustainable budget based on a model by University of Alaska economist Scott Goldsmith. Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, was elected Senate president.
Legislators are hoping to avoid a repeat of last year’s gridlocked sessions. But they face tough choices on thorny issues like taxes, the use of earnings from Alaska’s oil-wealth fund to help pay for state government, and how much to continue cutting the state budget.
Kelly told reporters that his Republican-led caucus will evaluate the use of Alaska Permanent Fund earnings as part of a plan to address the deficit. But Kelly said the Senate won’t act on that issue until there is a spending limit in place and proven budget reductions.
The Senate majority wants to cut another $750 million from the budget over the next three years, with education, health and social services, the university system and transportation areas expected to be scrutinized. How a spending limit might take shape remains unclear.
The permanent fund’s principal is constitutionally protected, but the fund’s earnings can be spent, if lawmakers choose. The yearly checks most Alaskans receive come from fund earnings.
Last year, the Senate passed a bill supported by Gov. Bill Walker that called for structured draws from permanent fund earnings. But the bill faltered in the House. Indeed, most pieces of the fiscal plan offered by Walker failed, as lawmakers struggled to agree on a path forward.
This year, the House, long held by Republicans, has new leadership, with a new coalition — Democrats, three Republicans and two independents — in charge. The Senate remains in GOP hands.
“I think there is, at least in my estimation, the realization that this is the year to make major strides toward a long-term fiscal plan,” Edgmon told reporters.
Many legislators say they feel a sense of urgency in tackling the deficit amid the continued draw-down of state savings.
Walker so far has proposed a scaled-back fiscal plan, calling for use of permanent fund earnings, freezing state employee pay increases and tripling motor fuel taxes, leaving a gap he wants to work with lawmakers to fill on “their terms.”
Walker is scheduled to deliver the annual State of the State address on Wednesday night.