LAST SQUALL – Skaters head to Swan Lake during a snow squall Saturday night --  the last day of skating before temperatures warmed up to above freezing. Birch Equipment Rentals donated the use of a high intensity light during the recent cold snap to aid evening skaters. (Sentinel Photo by James Poulson)

Senate Starts Work, Shakes Up Panels

Associated Press
    JUNEAU (AP) — The first day of the legislative session Tuesday featured fallout from a budget vote last year, as the Alaska Senate shook up its committees and some conservative members cried foul.
    Senate President Cathy Giessel said the changes were discussed during an hours-long caucus meeting Tuesday. She said the Republican-led caucus had an agreement that members would vote on the budget and that three members last summer took actions at odds with that.
    Sen. Lora Reinbold, an Eagle River Republican, last July voted against a bill aimed at largely restoring vetoes made by Gov. Mike Dunleavy. The bill also included funding for an Alaska Permanent Fund dividend check of about $1,600 to residents. Sens. Mike Shower and Shelley Hughes, who showed up for part of that debate, were shown as excused on the final vote. All three, who had supported a larger dividend in line with Dunleavy’s call to pay the check according to a decades-old formula, lost key positions in the committee shakeup Tuesday.
    Reinbold called Tuesday’s actions — affirmed on a 13-7 floor vote — a “restructuring of power” in the Senate.
    Rules announced by the caucus ahead of last year’s session said members who “find themselves unable to” vote for the budget would not face automatic removal from the caucus. Rather, it said consequences “will be determined by the caucus and consider the importance of representing constituents.”
    Shower, a Wasilla Republican, said Tuesday he was being held to account for an excusal allowed under Senate procedures. He said he saw the committee change-ups as punitive and marginalizing.
    Shower was one of two members who lost a seat on the powerful Senate Finance Committee. The other was Sen. Peter Micciche, a Soldotna Republican who was named Senate Resources chair. The finance committee was expanded for last year’s session with what the majority had described as a goal of giving more senators “hands-on roles in the budget process.”
    Giessel said Tuesday the winnowing of the finance committee was the choice of the co-chairs, Republicans Bert Stedman and Natasha von Imhof. Returning it to seven members “creates a more nimble committee,” she said, adding that senators will still have input in the process.
    Hughes, a Palmer Republican, said she saw the changes as punishment for members’ positions on the dividend.
    Some committee changes were expected with a new senator, Josh Revak, on board. He replaced Chris Birch, who died last year. Birch had been the Senate Resources chair.

Panel Fails to Agree On Changes to PF Dividend

    JUNEAU (AP) — A legislative panel has failed to reach an agreement on potential changes to the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend, leaving lawmakers with little guidance on a path forward on the thorny subject.
    The state has struggled to address a long-running deficit. It has drawn down savings accounts and in 2018 began using fund earnings, traditionally used to pay dividends to residents, to also help cover government expenses.
    The Bicameral Permanent Fund Working Group’s only recommendation was that the Legislature should not violate a 2018 law that sought to limit what could be withdrawn from Alaska Permanent Fund earnings for dividends and government expenses.
    “We were able to establish and recommend that the Permanent Fund should be protected from inflation and the Legislature should not utilize more of the earnings reserve” than is outlined in the law limiting the draw to roughly 5% of the fund’s overall market value, House Finance Committee Co-chair and Republican Jennifer Johnston told KTOO-FM.
    Republican Sen. Shelley Hughes is concerned that the the law limiting the draw will not limit spending from the fund’s earnings reserve, since the Legislature has previously chosen not to follow the 1982 dividend formula law and can do so again, she said. The formula, which Dunleavy has argued should be followed until it’s changed, has not been followed in recent years, amid the deficit battle. Dunleavy’s budget proposal for the upcoming year, which would pay a dividend under the formula, also would use $1.5 billion from savings.
    The working group decided Monday against a specific change to the formula for setting Permanent Fund dividends.
    The eight-member legislative panel was created last year to provide policy recommendations on the fund.
    “It was my perspective that our scope of work was somewhat restrained, so it never felt that we never threw ourselves headlong into looking at new dividend formulas,” Democratic Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins said, adding the group’s work was not a failure.

Judge Vacates Order Halting Recall Effort

Associated Press
    JUNEAU (AP) — A state court judge Wednesday said he had “inadvertently” put on hold a decision that would have allowed the recall effort against Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy to proceed.
    In a written order Wednesday, Superior Court Judge Eric Aarseth in Anchorage said additional briefs were due Thursday.
    Earlier this month, Aarseth said petitions should be issued by Feb. 10, so recall supporters could begin a new signature-gathering phase. He indicated then that he did not intend to halt that process. Then Tuesday, after receiving written arguments from Stand Tall With Mike, a recall opposition group, he issued a decision staying the matter pending resolution of the case in the Alaska Supreme Court.
    Wednesday, he said he “inadvertently” granted the request and vacated Tuesday’s decision. He said he’d received filings opposing a stay and said reply briefs are due Thursday.
    Brewster Jamieson, an attorney for Stand Tall With Mike, said he thinks a stay should be granted and intends to file a response.
    Scott Kendall, an attorney for the Recall Dunleavy group, said Aarseth recognized he made an administrative mistake. Absent a stay by the judge or Alaska Supreme Court, the state Division of Elections is under an order to issue petitions by Feb. 10, Kendall said.

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