Democrats sparked lengthy discussions this week about closed-door meetings, caucus discipline and budgeting methodology, in the wake of the state budget bill assembled by the House.
Leaders of the Republican majority no doubt are miffed that their effort to actually increase the state general fund for the first time in six years isn't being resoundingly feted. But while Democrats thanked the majority for some of the spending increases, they still characterized the budget as woefully inadequate for urgent needs.
More trenchantly, Democrats complained that certain closed-door tactics served to concentrate power in the hands of one man, House Finance Co-Chairman Eldon Mulder of Anchorage.
Rep. Eric Croft, an Anchorage Democrat, stressed that if there has to be an all-powerful number cruncher, Mulder is a pretty good choice. But Croft contends that Mulder was able to make some Republicans vote against their convictions, leading to line items in the budget that were not supported by a majority of the House.
There were a few Republican defections on Democrat-sponsored amendments on the House floor, nonetheless.
For example, freshman Lesil McGuire of Anchorage voted for the amendment to increase education spending; Juneau veteran Bill Hudson supported alcohol treatment initiatives; and McGuire, Anchorage sophomore Andrew Halcro, Homer freshman Drew Scalzi and Wrangell freshman Peggy Wilson supported a $1 million increase in state aid for pupil transportation.
But none of the amendments came closer than a six-vote margin.
Hudson, Whitaker and Soldotna freshman Ken Lancaster voted against the pupil transportation amendment, even though they initially supported a similar boost in the House Finance Committee. During the committee meeting a week ago, Mulder took them aside and complained about being blind-sided, according to Hudson. Hudson said he was "somewhat embarrassed" about changing his vote but said Mulder assured him he would find the money later in the session.
"I perhaps could have dealt with it a little more delicately," Mulder said.
There also were lingering complaints about the closed-door process that had yielded spending targets for the budget. Democrats have called the numbers arbitrary and noted that they came out before some subcommittees had finished overviews of the departments under their jurisdiction.
Hudson, who chaired the labor and natural resources finance subcommittees, defended the process, though. He said he didn't have any problem getting an additional $425,000 to fill positions and raise salaries in the Division of Oil and Gas. While adding $880,000 to the ferry system budget took a little stronger persuasion, Mulder eventually relented and didn't fight the amendment in the full committee, Hudson said.
Mulder said that he's trying to head off as many conflicts as possible between the majority and minority, noting that he needs at least two members of the minority to tap the Constitutional Budget Reserve to balance the budget. At the same time, he has to beware members of his own caucus who would vote the whole budget down if spending went up too much, Mulder said.
Balancing the competing forces, including the development of strategy in private, is "what my job is about." Adjustments can be made later in the session, but premature compromise has proven disastrous in the past, he said.
Croft made it clear at week's end that he isn't satisfied. He introduced a resolution that would put a constitutional amendment on the 2002 ballot that would force the majority to open its caucus meetings to the public.
"I have no delusions this amendment will pass." - Rep. Gretchen Guess, Anchorage Democrat, on increasing funding for children's health and welfare programs
"I feel compelled to speak on this: My wife may be watching." - Rep. Harry Crawford, Anchorage Democrat, whose wife is a social worker, speaking on the same amendment
"I take my obligatory pause before I speak, and my obligatory head scratch." - Whitaker, expressing ambivalence about an amendment to boost funding for the University of Alaska
Bill McAllister can be reached at email@example.com.
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