House Speaker grows pessimistic about finishing in 90 days

House Speaker Bryce Edgmon (right) and Senate President Pete Kelly (left) watch a joint floor session

ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - For the first time since the Legislature opened its session Jan. 16, a political leader is expressing pessimism about lawmakers getting their work done within the 90-day legal limit.

“I still think there’s hope, there’s still time,” House Speaker Bryce Edgmon said in an interview Tuesday.

But, he added, it appeared to him that Senate leaders were being uncompromising in statements to reporters on Monday, leading him to believe that impasse lays ahead, not compromise.

That could spur anger from voters in the November election, though it remains unsettled who they would blame. The Senate’s majority leader, Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, said a 90-day session remains a top priority for the Senate.

But that may not be possible, Edgmon said.

“When I first got here this session, I really felt optimistic about getting done in 90 days,” he said during the House majority’s news conference Tuesday. “I would say that as of yesterday, I’m pretty discouraged, and I see more gridlock and I see a lot of stalemating coming up and I see a lot of absolute, hard-and-fast, ‘We’re not going to change our mind’ kind of positions on very important public policy issues and certainly the future of the state.”

In the Senate’s majority caucus news conference Monday, the Republican leadership — Senate President Pete Kelly of Fairbanks and Micciche, along with Sen. Natasha von Imhof, a Finance Committee member from Anchorage — criticized the House for its early passage of an education budget bill that failed to get the three-quarters vote necessary to tap the Constitutional Budget Reserve. As it sits now, in limbo in the Senate, the bill is mostly unfunded, though it passed the House 33-3.

With its lack of funding, the bill wasn’t an early education bill at all, Kelly said. But Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, the bill’s author, said the Senate could find the money.

In an interview, Micciche said that would happen.

The senators also said a fiscal plan with new broad-based taxes wasn’t necessary because the state’s economy is improving and state budget deficits would eventually go away on their own. Micciche said new taxes would hurt the recovering economy.

“We’re going to be working on a balanced budget in a year or two,” predicted Micciche, also a Finance Committee member. “We don’t need additional revenue.”

But Edgmon said the Senate leaders claimed that the House “knowingly misled people” on the education bill.

“Whatever they (the Senate) might have been doing, it clearly attempted to characterize the House’s intentions,” Edgmon said.

That’s not how he has done business, he said.

“All the major addresses that I’ve done as presiding officer in the House have been couched in language about compromising, coming to the table,” Edgmon said. “We’re willing to flex in our positions, we’re willing to consider alternatives, we’re willing to not only put a budget together this year, as required by the constitution, but as well to take that harder look out into the future.”

The Alaska Constitution sets regular legislative sessions at 121 days, but voters cut the length to 90 days in an initiative in 2006. Because the Legislature writes the laws, it can go over 90 days, but can’t exceed the constitutional limit without going into special session or passing an extension by a two-thirds vote in both houses.

Micciche said the Senate majority remained committed to finishing in 90 days. And, he insisted in a phone call, it has compromised, primarily by agreeing the lower budget cuts proposed by House Democrats.

“Yes, it’s true, we don’t support broad-based taxes,” he added. But the Senate supports education and won’t agree to a slow budget process that results in layoff notices to teachers in May.

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