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Lawmakers focus on budget as scheduled end of 90-day legislative session looms

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JUNEAU, Alaska — On the eve of the Legislature's scheduled adjournment, attention shifted Saturday to the budget and efforts to finalize a package that could garner sufficient support.

House and Senate negotiators met Saturday afternoon to close out some operating budget items, including agreeing to ease the level of some of the proposed cuts to the state ferry system. More contentious pieces — like education funding and whether to fund negotiated salary increases for union workers next year — remained in play.

It has been expected that a three-fourths vote would be called for to draw from funds from the constitutional budget reserve fund to help balance the budget. In the House, that would mean Democratic support to meet that threshold. House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, and House Minority Leader Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, said late Saturday that talks were continuing. "We're working," Chenault said.

The House Finance Committee late Friday night advanced a $1.5 billion capital spending package that includes supplemental items for the current year. A vote on the bill is scheduled for Sunday.

The 90-day session is scheduled to end Sunday, and besides the budget, lawmakers need to consider confirmation of Gov. Bill Walker's new Cabinet-level department heads and appointments to boards and commissions. Lawmakers could try to override Walker's veto of legislation that would temporarily restrict participation of a state-sponsored corporation in an alternate gas project Walker has proposed. There's legislation to finish, too, including an Interior energy bill that Walker has called a must-have. That's in the Senate.

The Legislature's rules say a conference committee report on the budget may not be voted on until at least 24 hours after the report is delivered to the Senate secretary or chief clerk of the House.

It appeared unlikely that proposals to expand or reform Medicaid would be taken up before lawmakers were scheduled to adjourn.

The Senate Finance Committee has not heard either Walker's bill to expand Medicaid and make changes aimed at reducing and containing costs within the program, or a bill by co-chair Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, focused on reforms. Similar bills were pending in House Finance.

Senate President Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, said members of his Republican-led caucus are "scattered" on how to address the Medicaid issue.

"I think the governor will have to call us back on that one," he said.

Walker, speaking with reporters Saturday, again indicated he might call legislators into special session to take up Medicaid expansion if they did not address it before adjourning. Asked how the administration could advance the discussion, Walker said it would have to continue answering the questions lawmakers have.

PHOTO: Gov. Bill Walker prepares to take his seat at a press conference Saturday, April 18, 2015, in the Alaska State Capitol. The first session of the 29th Alaska State Legislature is scheduled to finish Sunday night. (Klas Stolpe/The Juneau Empire via AP)
Gov. Bill Walker prepares to take his seat at a press conference Saturday, April 18, 2015, in the Alaska State Capitol. The first session of the 29th Alaska State Legislature is scheduled to finish Sunday night. (Klas Stolpe/The Juneau Empire via AP)

Earlier this week, House Democrats said they considered Medicaid expansion a key piece to winning their support to authorize any draw from the constitutional budget reserve fund. Tuck said Walker's comments didn't take away leverage from his Democratic-led caucus.

"But it did probably make it less urgent for Medicaid expansion during the regular session," he said. Education funding and the union-worker raises were other issues of importance, he said.

Tuck said Saturday night that he expected Medicaid expansion to "probably to be one of the largest struggles in getting out of here on time." While Walker has talked about a special session to take it up, Tuck said his thought is, Why wait?

Language to authorize the draw, which was included in the Senate version of the capital budget, was removed from the House Finance version. It wasn't clear late Saturday what any eventual language would look.

The House and Senate each moved a number of bills on their respective floors Saturday. The Senate, like the House before it, passed legislation repealing scheduled 2.5-percent pay raises for legislative, executive and judicial branch employees not covered by labor contracts. Reconsideration was served, meaning it could be voted on again.

The House, following emotional debate, passed legislation that calls for Alaska public schools to create age-appropriate curricula and training aimed at awareness and prevention of sexual abuse and dating violence. The House also voted to repeal Alaska's film production tax credit program, which was already on track to be idled as part of budget cuts. But the bill could be voted on again under reconsideration. A version of the film credit bill previously passed the Senate.

Sunday's docket includes a joint session to take up confirmations, a process that can take hours. Meyer said he, Chenault and Walker planned to continue talking about whether there was a way forward on the gas line issue that would give both sides a measure of comfort. No agreement had been reached late Saturday night.

"This would be the best way, if we could resolve it through diplomacy instead of a showdown on a veto override," Meyer said.

Alaska is facing a multibillion-dollar deficit amid the fall in oil prices. Lawmakers have focused on cuts before starting in earnest on any discussions about additional revenue, but it is seen as virtually impossible for the state to cut its way out of its fiscal predicament. Savings will be tapped to get by.

Walker wants to engage on the revenue issue beginning this summer; bills proposing new taxes or other ways to generate revenue have been introduced as the session has neared an end to help get that discussion going.

In the event a special session is called following adjournment, Sen. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, introduced a resolution Saturday urging the governor to designate a site on the state's road system.

Juneau, the capital city, is not on the road system.

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PHOTO: The conference committee on the state operating budget meets on Saturday, April 18, 2015, in Juneau, Alaska. Sunday marks the scheduled end of the 90-day legislative session. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer)
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