Senate votes for special session away from Juneau

If the Alaska Legislature holds a special session this year, the Alaska Senate wants it to take place away from Juneau.

In a 13-7 vote Wednesday, the Senate approved Senate Concurrent Resolution 16. Drafted by Sen. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, the resolution asks that if the governor calls a special session, it be in the Railbelt.

“I hope this is an irrelevant resolution and we finish our work,” Stoltze said, but added that he wants to have a plan in case extra time is needed.

The resolution is not binding legislation; it’s just a request. It only pertains to a special session held this summer.

“It’s a very gently worded, constrained message,” Stoltze said.

This summer is expected to be the final season of renovations to the Alaska Capitol, which is being reinforced in a $33 million project to better withstand earthquakes. That work has been scheduled to take place away from the normal legislative session, which concludes in April.

This year, construction equipment is scheduled to begin staging in the Capitol’s parking lots the day after the session’s scheduled end, said Sen. Anna MacKinnon, R-Anchorage.

If that scheduled end is thrown out, the schedule for construction could be, too.

That’s a problem for the contractor, Dawson Inc. “If we do have to delay, it is going to cost us extra money,” said Pam Varni, executive director of the Legislative Affairs Agency, which is overseeing construction.

Varni said the large construction crane that has towered over the Capitol the past two summers won’t appear again until May 2 this year.

Last year, the Legislature held a 98-day regular session in Juneau, disregarding a ballot initiative that called for a 90-day regular session. Lawmakers worked until April 27, holding to the Alaska Constitution’s 121-day limit.

After that, Gov. Bill Walker called them into a special Juneau session, and they worked from April 28 through May 21.

With construction taking place around them, they adjourned to Anchorage, working from May 21 to June 11, when they approved a budget and adjourned. In total, the Legislature worked for 143 days in the spring. Another special session followed in the fall, once construction ended.

On Wednesday, Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, spoke at length against the resolution, saying Juneau is perfectly capable of holding a special session even if the Capitol is unavailable. He raised the idea of using Centennial Hall or the Juneau Arts and Culture Center.

To the idea of using Centennial Hall, Stoltze responded, “I wouldn’t want to kick prom out so some politicians can have meetings here.”

Egan also attempted to amend the resolution to require the host location to fund Gavel to Gavel, the cable-TV service that broadcasts Legislative hearings and floor sessions. The City and Borough of Juneau subsidizes that channel for sessions held in Juneau. The amendment was defeated 5-15.

Egan also suggested two other amendments that would have made Juneau the first choice for a special session, even if the Capitol is unavailable. Each was defeated 7-13.

Despite all the debate, it remains unclear whether the Alaska Legislature will need a special session this year. On the Senate floor, lawmakers said they feel they can get their job done in 90 days.

Gov. Bill Walker might feel differently.

On March 23, Walker laid out his views of the Legislature’s duties before it adjourns this year. In a letter to lawmakers, he wrote: “There are three things that must happen in 2016 to achieve the goal of a truly sustainable balanced budget: Reduced state spending, restructure of Permanent Fund earnings and dividend program, and new revenues to include some form of a broad-based tax. Make no mistake, I consider all these requirements written in pen; how they all come together, however, is still very much in pencil.”

The governor has indicated that if the Legislature does not do enough to balance the state’s deficit, he may call it into special session.

Senate Concurrent Resolution 16 now goes to the House for approval.

• Contact reporter James Brooks at 419-7732 or james.k.brooks@juneauempire.com.

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