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Legislature adjourns special session called by Walker; gavels in for new session of its own

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JUNEAU, Alaska — The Alaska Legislature on Thursday ended the special session called by Gov. Bill Walker and immediately began its own special session, in Anchorage instead of Juneau.

Legislative leaders had planned to hold floor sessions in Anchorage under Walker's special session call but there were legal questions surrounding that. The 30-day special session called by Walker was for Juneau. The Legislature's top attorney, Doug Gardner, said in memo requested by Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, that he believed a court would find the Legislature could not legally convene the session called by Walker outside of Juneau without his permission or additional instruction from him.

Earlier this week, Walker said he wouldn't take steps to block legislators from meeting in Anchorage but said he also wasn't giving them his blessing or permission to do so.

The Legislature can call itself into a special session, in a location of its choosing, if at least 40 members agree. In a separate memo, dated Monday, Gardner said that while it seems unlikely a court would invalidate the action of the Legislature ending the special session called by Walker in Anchorage there was risk in doing so, since Walker's call was for Juneau.

In an interview, Senate Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, said he saw the location of where lawmakers chose to end Walker's call as within the Legislature's prerogative and thought it would be difficult to challenge that point. Minority Democrats spoke against moving the session to Anchorage during floor sessions at the Anchorage legislative office. The meetings were streamed online.

Legislative leaders cited renovation work at the Capitol and the cost of bringing everyone back to Juneau as reasons for a venue change. Lawmakers scattered after the Legislature last month voted for an 11-day break in floor sessions. There were a number of excused absences from Thursday's floor sessions, the first since April 30 in which the majority of members were in attendance.

Walker's special session had been scheduled to end next week; with the Legislature's action Thursday, a new 30-day clock starts. However, Coghill said legislators want to finish their work as quickly as possible, with a potential target of June 1, if not sooner.

Walker called lawmakers into special session after they failed to pass a fully funded budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. The House fell short of the votes needed to access the constitutional budget reserve fund to cover costs. Legislative leaders have said use of that account remains the preferred option but have not ruled out use of other funds that do not require the same three-fourths vote but are politically tricky to touch if agreement with the Democratic-led House minority cannot be reached.

However, six members of the Alaska House's GOP-led majority — two Democrats and four Republicans — wrote to Speaker Mike Chenault expressing "serious misgivings" with any potential transfer of funds from the Permanent Fund earnings reserve as part of an effort to fund the budget, creating a new possible wrinkle.

The letter, first reported by the Alaska Dispatch News, was signed by Reps. Bryce Edgmon, Louise Stutes, Neal Foster, Gabrielle LeDoux, Jim Colver and Paul Seaton. They said resorting to the Permanent Fund earnings so soon as part of a solution to the impasse will "sow grave confusion and mistrust among Alaskans." They said major actions related to the Permanent Fund should go before the voters.

While a condition of being in the majority is voting for the budget, they said they saw this as a policy change, not a procedural vote, and did not intend to vote in favor of it.

A new budget bill, discussed in House Finance Thursday, essentially mirrors elements included in the partially funded budget passed late last month, restoring items vetoed by Walker, the committee was told. Walker had vetoed unfunded portions of the bill. He accepted funding and items for the remainder of the current year.

The docket for the new special session also includes a bill that initially focused on sexual assault awareness and prevention programs in schools but has ballooned to include other school-related provisions. The Republican-led majorities have indicated they do not intend to take up the other item Walker had on his call: Medicaid expansion and reform.

Walker, in a statement, said he was disappointed the legislature did not bring to a vote any of the three items on the special session call before adjourning in Anchorage. He also said he was "deeply concerned" with the legislature's lack of progress on a fully funded budget.

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