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House majority leaders: Bills that cost money will get more scrutiny amid large state deficits

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JUNEAU, Alaska — Bills that cost money will get extra scrutiny this session, members of the House majority said Wednesday.

The state is facing multibillion-dollar budget deficits amid a fall in oil prices. However, it has billions of dollars in savings that lawmakers and Gov. Bill Walker plan to dip into to help get by.

House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, said sometimes lawmakers will pass legislation that they feel is needed and costs some money. But he said bills that cost money may not move as quickly through the process this year as their sponsors would like.

House Finance Committee co-chair Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks, said it will be difficult to justify increasing the budget through new legislation. But he said health, life and safety issues will be part of that deliberation.

There likely will be less legislation this year, unless it's "overwhelmingly needed," said House Majority Leader Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage.

Members of the GOP-led majority laid out their priorities for the session, which started Tuesday. Chief among those was developing "responsible budgets that protect Alaska's economy and allow us to live within our means."

PHOTO: House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, left, listens as Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, speaks during a news conference Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015, in Juneau, Alaska. House majority members discussed their priorities for the session,including addressing the state's massive budget deficit and advancing a natural gas pipeline project. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)
House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, left, listens as Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, speaks during a news conference Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015, in Juneau, Alaska. House majority members discussed their priorities for the session,including addressing the state's massive budget deficit and advancing a natural gas pipeline project. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

Thompson's House Finance co-chair, Rep. Mark Neuman, said the state can't spend money it doesn't have.

House members will do their best to weigh the implications of cuts to the state's operating budget, such as how a possible loss of state jobs would impact communities, said Neuman, R-Big Lake.

Thompson said the state will be broke in two years if it continues doing what it's doing. Everything has to be open for consideration right now, he said.

One thing that majority House members see as off-limits, however, is the Alaska Permanent Fund. Chenault said the caucus wants to reassure the public that House leaders have no intention to touch that.

Currently, the constitution prohibits the principal of the Permanent Fund from being spent. However, the earnings reserve account is available to lawmakers. It is also from that account that dividends — the yearly check that most Alaskans receive — are drawn.

Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, said the caucus wants to be careful in how it approaches the deficit so as not to hurt the economy. The situation is unlikely to be resolved in a year.

"I mean, how many times have we heard in this room the sky is falling, and we get bailed out by something?" Johnson said during a news conference in the speaker's chamber. "I don't see a parachute on this one."

"But we need to get the people to understand the role of government, what we should be financing, what we shouldn't be financing," he said. "And the citizens of Alaska have to come to grips with our situation."

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