JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — The Alaska Senate approved a roughly $1,100 dividend on the last day of a special session Tuesday, after the House canceled its floor session and left the Senate with what amounted to a take-it-or-leave-it decision on the check for residents that the House had previously passed.
The Senate Finance Committee sent the House version of the bill to the Senate floor on Tuesday where it passed 12-7 after efforts to amend the bill in favor of a higher payout failed.
Sen. Bert Stedman, the committee co-chair, had said that if the Senate adopted any changes, the bill would die.
House Speaker Louise Stutes, in a statement announcing the canceled floor session, said legislative rules bar concurrence the same day the other chamber passes legislation and that there was no time left for a conference committee if the Senate made any changes.
Legislators could waive those rules with two-thirds support in each chamber. But she told reporters later that she has had challenges all year in reaching that threshold in the sharply divided House. She said it “was the most expedient to just cancel session.”
“The Senate came through,” she said of the dividend vote.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who has advocated for a roughly $2,350 check, late Tuesday said he would not veto the dividend approved by lawmakers, though he considered it a “partial” dividend. He said Alaskans “need help now.”
Dunleavy said he would push to get a fuller dividend and for action on a fiscal plan during another special session, which he said would begin Oct. 1. It would be the fourth special session this year.
There have been different views on whether some of the funds targeted for use for the dividend in the bill that passed are readily available. Without those, the dividend would be estimated at $585, according to the Legislative Finance Division.
The bill would use general funds and money from the statutory budget reserve fund for this year’s dividend. The reserve fund was long considered among the accounts subject to being swept into the constitutional budget reserve to repay it for money that had been used from it. Lawmakers can reverse the sweep and restore funds to their original accounts. But earlier this year, they failed to secure the votes to do so.
The director of Legislative Legal Services has said a recent court decision suggests the statutory reserve is not subject to the sweep. Dunleavy spokesperson Jeff Turner last month said the fund “has been swept” and that the Legislature could change that with a three-quarters vote.
Turner, in a statement Tuesday, said the Legislature is the appropriating body and that lawmakers have put on the record multiple times since the court decision the belief that the statutory budget reserve is a valid fund source for the dividend.
Dunleavy “continues to believe that view is not as certain as the Legislature has made it seem, and the issue may have to be resolved by the courts. Right now, Governor Dunleavy believes it is more important to get PFD checks into the hands of Alaskans as quickly as possible to help them recover from the economic fallout of the pandemic,” Turner’s statement said. PFD refers to the permanent fund dividend.
Dividend checks are typically paid in the fall. Genevieve Wojtusik, with the state Department of Revenue, has said residents could expect a check 30 days after an appropriation has been finalized by the Legislature.
During debate on the Senate floor, Sen. Mike Shower, a Wasilla Republican, expressed frustration that more progress was not being made toward an overall fiscal plan and that the dividend debate was taken up on the last day of session.
“I’m tired of getting slow-rolled,” he said, adding that lawmakers were being “backed into a corner” on a dividend vote.
“It feels like a setup to me, I’ll be honest with you,” said Shower, who supported a higher dividend and was a no vote on the bill.
The Senate narrowly passed an amendment that Sen. David Wilson, another Wasilla Republican, said would have amounted to a roughly $2,350 dividend but that vote was rescinded and the proposal failed on a second vote. Sen. Scott Kawasaki, a Fairbanks Democrat, made the rescind motion after voting in favor of the $2,350 check.
Kawasaki said while he supported the higher dividend, if the Senate changed the bill, it would leave this year’s check unresolved and in limbo. He said he could not do that to his constituents.
Most senators who had previously excused absences from the floor were present for Tuesday’s debate, including Sen. Lora Reinbold. The Eagle River Republican last week requested an excused absence from Sept. 11 until mid-January, citing the challenges of traveling to Juneau after she was suspended from flying on Alaska Airlines earlier this year.
Juneau is accessible by air or water. Delta Air Lines has said its seasonal Juneau service was to end on Sept. 12.
Alaska Airlines has said Reinbold was suspended “for her continued refusal to comply with employee instruction regarding the current mask policy.” Reinbold has said she was in compliance.
She said Tuesday that she is a “team player.” She said regardless of the personal consequences because of the ban, which she called political, she “wanted to be here to vote on behalf of my constituents.” She voted against the bill, after supporting two failed efforts for a larger dividend, one for the roughly $2,350 and one that called for dividends in line with a longstanding formula last used in 2015, estimated to be around $3,800.
Senate President Peter Micciche told reporters after the vote that he will not allow the Senate again to “get down to the last minute to where we don’t have the room to negotiate. We’ve seen this before. It can’t happen again.”
He said he does not consider lawmakers’ work for this year complete and wants to see continued work toward a fiscal plan.
Lawmakers earlier this year proposed an $1,100 check, using funds cobbled together from various pots and tying strings to that amount. It failed to win enough support, and what remained was estimated to be a $525 check that Dunleavy vetoed.
Lawmakers in recent years have sought to limit annual withdrawals from the earnings of Alaska’s oil-wealth fund for dividends and government costs, though they can breach the cap if they choose to do so. Stutes has said that members of the bipartisan coalition that she leads are willing to do that only if it is tied to a comprehensive fiscal solution. Some lawmakers are worried that if the cap is broken, it will be easier for lawmakers to keep dipping further into earnings in the future.
The bill that passed Tuesday would not exceed the cap.
Other lawmakers have argued that people need help amid the economic fallout from the pandemic and the state has the resources to do that.