JUNEAU — The Alaska House has delayed a critical vote on a budget that could send $5,500 checks to Alaskans.
The delay comes amid concerns by the bipartisan House majority that enough House members will vote in favor of the Senate’s version of the bill to send it directly to the governor. They say the dividend could empty the state’s savings and leave the state in dire straits if oil prices drop.
The House was set to vote on the budget Wednesday evening after the Senate passed it Tuesday. But in an unusual move, House Speaker Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, adjourned until Thursday morning before the full House was set to convene, with only one other House member present.
The House was again expected to meet at 10 a.m. Thursday, but the floor session was delayed to the call of the chair, leaving the decision on scheduling a vote to Stutes.
It would take 21 of the 40 House members voting in favor of the budget to send it directly to Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s desk with no changes.
Dunleavy, a Republican, has not made his position on the Senate budget public, but a full statutory dividend has long been his goal, and he has been meeting privately with lawmakers ahead of the House vote.
The House last month passed a budget that included around $2,600 in cash for Alaskans, divided between $1,300 energy assistance checks and $1,300 dividends. That budget also allowed for some state savings.
The Senate doubled the amount that would be sent to Alaskans in the budget it passed on Tuesday. The Senate version includes a full statutory $4,200 dividend on top of the $1,300 energy assistance checks. If it remains unchanged, it could drain the state’s savings even in a year that brought unexpected revenue due to high oil prices.
“The speaker is working to ensure that the budget that reaches the Governor’s desk is fiscally responsible,” said Joe Plesha, spokesperson for the House majority, in a statement explaining the delay on the vote. “She remains committed to the values outlined in the budget the House passed – putting money into savings to prepare for the eventual drop in oil prices and investing in Alaska’s education and refilling the Higher Education Investment Fund.”
Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage, blasted Dunleavy for what he says is an effort by the governor to convince lawmakers to concur with the budget. But it would take several members of the majority — most of whom are Democrats — to reach the necessary vote threshold to pass the budget.
“The Senate sent us back a budget with a dividend figure that literally not a single senator thought has a chance in hell of passing, because it is totally unreasonable, completely unaffordable and defunds education funding,” Fields said. “So then the governor jumps in at the last minute and starts urging members to vote yes on concurrence.”
Supporters of the larger dividend in the Senate had said they expected the House to reject their budget version, which would force lawmakers to reach a middle ground in a conference committee comprised of majority and minority members of both the House and Senate.
Fields said the governor has been “strong-arming members, including trying to strong-arm traditional fiscally conservative people.”
Dunleavy has been “meeting with lawmakers from all four caucuses on the budget,” according to a statement from his spokesperson Jeff Turner.
“He is committed to working with lawmakers on a spending plan that can receive legislative approval by May 18, the constitutional deadline for this year’s legislative session,” Turner said in an email.
Once the Legislature passes the budget, the governor could veto line items.
Joelle Hall, president of Alaska AFL-CIO, confirmed Thursday that she had heard some majority members indicating they would vote to concur.
The union released a statement Wednesday urging lawmakers to reject the Senate budget.
“Shame on every legislator who has stood in the way of good policy to save a penny, only to throw it all away on an irresponsible dividend,” Hall said in the statement.
Some Republican House minority leaders have previously indicated that they support a full statutory dividend. The majority members in favor of the budget could be swayed not only by the large dividend but also hard-fought money for capital projects at the Port of Alaska in Anchorage and the Port of Nome, which were priorities for House Finance committee co-chairs Kelly Merrick, R-Eagle River, and Neal Foster, D-Nome.
The budget in its current form would dip into state savings even as it hinges on oil prices staying close to the current estimate of $100 per barrel. Just two years ago, the price per barrel dipped below zero, and lawmakers opposed to the budget in its current form say it is dangerous to rely on oil prices remaining above the $100 per barrel mark.
The Legislature has until May 18 to pass a budget or could be forced to enter a special session.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.