In less than three weeks, the Alaska Legislature will hit its statutory limit of a ninety-day session. Currently, there doesn’t seem to be much of a chance that their business will be concluded by then. Longer sessions have become the norm in recent years, with some legislators citing the 121-day limit established in the state constitution.
This year, as in previous years, the state’s operating budget is a major factor in the slowdown. The Alaska House recently adopted an amendment to the budget that would pay the full formula value of Permanent Fund Dividends this year, estimated at $2700. The vote on that amendment fell along interesting lines. Some members of the primarily Democratic majority voted in favor, and some against. The same holds true for the Republican minority members.
Representative David Eastman, whose district includes the Northern Susitna Valley, says multiple factors were likely at play when House members had to choose whether to support the amendment, but he believes an income divide played a major role.
“If they represented a higher income district, then the PFD is not as much of a factor as far as their constituents’ economic future, and the idea of a future tax at some point—basically it’s a no-brainer. You sacrifice the small income of the PFD which might be two-percent of your income and you avoid the much more painful reality of an income tax or something like that.”
Eastman, who voted in favor of the amendment, says other factors include whether representatives support the percent-of-market-value plan moving forward in the Senate, which would use Permanent Fund earnings to fund state government into the future, and the fact that this is an election year.
Representative Eastman believes the fate of the increased PFD amendment ultimately comes down to how much House negotiators are willing to fight for it when they come together with their Senate counterparts to reconcile each chamber’s budget.
“If they really want it, then the Senate is going to start negotiating around that and want to negotiate on other things. If the House is communicating, ‘Eh, we only passed it by a small majority; That was just to get our folks re-elected.; We don’t really mean it,’ then I don’t think it stands a prayer. “
The PFD vote has also put some strain on the coalition House Majority caucus, since its members were almost evenly divided on the amendment. Representative Eastman is critical of Alaska’s caucus structure in general, as he outlined in a recent opinion piece for the Anchorage Daily News. He says choosing a caucus after arriving to Juneau effectively makes that caucus a legislator’s constituency. He says some of the demands caucuses make, such as voting in favor of the majority’s budget proposal, are not the norm, and can cause issues.
“I think some of our budget malaise that we’re experiencing right now as a state is directly attributed to the idea that you can just pledge your vote, blindly, to a budget when you don’t know what it is or even how large it’s going to be.”
While the budget dominates most of the news out of the Alaska Legislature, there are other things happening. One bill before the House Judiciary Committee, where Eastman is a member, would allow for gun violence protective orders, which would be at the discretion of a judge. Eastman says stopping that bill is his first priority outside of the budget.
“Today, my number-one legislative priority is making sure that House Bill Seventy-Five does not leave the House Judiciary Committee. I think it’s a terrible attempt at gun control. It’s not particularly well-suited to Alaska.”
Recently, David Eastman was joined in representing the Northern Susitna Valley by Senator Mike Shower. Eastman is complimentary of Shower’s work ethic, and says he is doing well at tackling a steep learning curve.
“I know he’s a hard worker. He and I have both come together after most folks have left the building more than once. I’m glad he’s sticking around. I know there’s quite a learning curve when you’re newly put into office.”
Senator Shower and Representative Eastman will be in Talkeetna for a town hall meeting this Saturday at the Talkeetna Public Library.