Democratic legislators are expressing more urgency than Republicans about the state's long-term fiscal gap.
Reacting to the Republicans' emphasis on passing a new constitutional limit for state spending, about a dozen Democrats on Monday said that new revenue must be raised this year to avert a fiscal collapse in two years, when budget reserves are projected to run out.
Rep. John Davies, a Fairbanks Democrat who is co-chairman of the bipartisan, bicameral Fiscal Policy Caucus, said the public, contrary to what many Senate Republicans say, doesn't expect the Legislature to hold off on raising revenue until there is a statewide vote on limiting spending.
"They don't want to know what we can't do," Davies said of the public. "They want to know what we can do. ...
"If we don't deal with the issue this session in a substantial way, it'll be too late. There's just no time left to wait until it's more convenient or easier to deal with."
The Democratic caucuses are outnumbered 14-6 in the Senate and 28-12 in the House, giving them little direct control over budgeting decisions. But through alliances with moderate Republicans in the Fiscal Policy Caucus, they are part of an apparent House majority that favors raising new revenue.
House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz of Anchorage said the daunting challenges facing lawmakers - particularly solving the budget gap and the subsistence controversy - can be met.
"This is the kind of time that Alaskans live for. We tend to respond best when it seems things are stacked against us," Berkowitz said. "And that's why I'm really optimistic about where this session is going to go."
Davies also expressed appreciation for comments by House Speaker Brian Porter on Monday. Porter, an Anchorage Republican, called on legislators to leave politicking until after the session, concentrating on the merits of legislative business.
In that spirit, Rep. Reggie Joule of Kotzebue, chairman of the House Bush Caucus, didn't rule out a suggestion by Senate President Rick Halford that a "local" priority for subsistence harvesting of fish and game should be the basis of a constitutional amendment, rather than the "rural" priority included in an amendment drafted for possible introduction by Gov. Tony Knowles.
"I think it's encouraging that suggestions are being made in that direction," Joule said. "I think we've got to be open."
The final piece of stage-setting for this session comes at 7 p.m. Wednesday, when Knowles delivers his final State of the State speech to the Legislature. He has said he will propose a specific long-range fiscal plan in the speech.
Halford said this morning that he will be looking for the governor to reconcile the fiscal gap - more than $1 billion in the coming fiscal year - with his proposal to increase state spending in the next budget by about $200 million.
"That can use up a new major tax, added on every year," Halford said. "So obviously that rate of increase can't be sustained even without a fiscal gap."
Halford said that Wednesday's joint session of the Legislature also will include a handful of votes on overriding Knowles' vetoes of bills last session.
Bill McAllister can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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