Legislators Approve Budget, End Session

By BECKY BOHRER
The Associated Press

JUNEAU (AP) — The Alaska Legislature in the waning hours of a four-month session approved a state spending package that would pay residents about $3,200 this year after a vote that would have boosted the payout to about $3,850 narrowly failed in the House.

The approved amount would be among the largest paid to state residents. The debate over the payment amounts came as the state has forecast higher-than-expected revenues, spurred by high oil prices, but also as Alaskans were feeling the pinch of high fuel, food and other costs.

Senate President Peter Micciche, a Soldotna Republican, said people are struggling and that he was disappointed that lawmakers had the chance “to help with a little bit more” but did not.

A tentative budget agreement reached by House and Senate negotiators Tuesday called for a dividend check from the earnings of the state’s oil-wealth fund of about $2,500 this year, plus a $1,300 “energy relief” check. However, half the funding for the energy checks was to come from a budget reserve account that requires three-fourths support in both the House and Senate for it to be tapped.

Estimates indicated that payments would be around $3,200 if that vote failed or around $3,850 if both chambers had the necessary votes.

The Senate approved the budget 19-1 and reached the required threshold to access the reserve account with a 15-5 vote. Gov. Mike Dunleavy urged representatives to also vote for the higher payout.

The House late Wednesday passed the budget 33-7. Support from at least 30 representatives was needed in a subsequent vote to access the reserve account.

With 29 votes in favor and 10 against, Rep. Grier Hopkins, a Fairbanks Democrat, voted no for the final tally of 29-11. The 11 no votes all came from members of the bipartisan House majority coalition.

Hopkins called it a difficult vote and said he thinks the amount approved will help Alaskans.

Asked if he could face fallout for his vote, Hopkins said he doesn’t think elected officials “should make their votes based on reelection. I think they should make it based on what’s right for their state and all of Alaskans.”

House Minority Leader Cathy Tilton, a Wasilla Republican, told reporters said she felt “sorry for Alaskans tonight.” She said members of her caucus wanted to try to get as much money as possible to Alaskans.

In 2008, the dividend was $2,069. There also was a $1,200 “resource rebate” due to high energy costs, according to the state Permanent Fund Dividend Division.

Dunleavy had called for payments of at least $3,700 but said Thursday he thinks the amount included in the budget will help Alaskans. Dividends are typically paid in the fall. Dunleavy was asked during a news conference if checks might be distributed early.

“That’s a discussion we’re going to have,” he said.

Wednesday marked the constitutional meeting deadline for the regular session. The House and Senate adjourned early Thursday morning, shortly after midnight.

There was a flurry of activity on the final day of the session, with lawmakers passing legislation aimed at strengthening sexual assault laws and at improving reading skills for students.

The education bill, which also includes an increase in a school funding formula, was praised by supporters as significant.

They said it emphasizes early learning and is aimed at helping improve educational outcomes. The measure was included in another bill in the Senate and sent to the House, where it narrowly passed. Critics raised concerns that it could impact local control and said the funding increase was paltry.

Rep. Bryce Edgmon, a Dillingham independent, said the bill “sidesteps the real issue ... teacher recruitment and retention.”

The dividend was a key focus in the final days of the session, which has also been the case in past years. The size of the check has become a yearly and sometimes divisive battle.

Most Alaskans get a dividend. There is a yearly application and residency requirements to qualify. Dividends traditionally have been paid using permanent fund earnings, which lawmakers also have come to rely on to help pay for government.

Lawmakers have sought to limit withdrawal amounts for dividends and government. That’s created tension over how much should go to each, and agreement on a new formula has been elusive. Last year’s check was $1,114.

Palin, Santa Claus Top Ballot in Sitka

By SHANNON HAUGLAND
Sentinel Staff Writer

Sitka voters began receiving their ballots this week for the June 11 special primary election for U.S. Representative.

A voter is entitled to vote for only one of the 48 candidates listed on the mail-in ballot.

The Sitka ballots have Sarah Palin at the top of the left column and Santa Claus at the top on the right.

While it might seem odd that the most famous names are at the top, a quick check of the Division of Elections website and a call to the division office in Juneau provided some answers.

It has to do with the numbering of the state’s 40 House election districts. Sitka is in District 35. (After redistricting Sitka will be in District 2.)

“Each House district gets its own ballot,” the state website says.

“Candidates for state representative are listed in a random alphabetical order determined by the division.

“Candidates for state senate are listed in the same random alphabetical order in odd House districts, and they rotate in even House districts, so that the candidate at the top of the list drops to the bottom of the list.

“All other candidates begin in alphabetical order in House District 1 and rotate from there.”

Therefore, the order of the candidates on the special primary ballot changes from district to district. Ballots in House District 1 have Dennis Aguayo at the top left, District 2 ballots have the next name in alphabetical order, Jay Armstrong, at the top left. District 3 ballots have Brian T. Beal top left, and so on alphabetically.

Sitka is in District 35 and Sarah Palin is the 35th candidate by alphabetical order, so she is at the top left on all of the District 35 ballots. She is also at the top of District 11 ballots, though on the right side.

Santa Claus is at the top of the right column in District 35, and the top of the left column in District 11.

Although all of the some 500,000 ballots were mailed at once on April 27 to all Alaska voters, they are arriving at different times. The Division of Elections does not know why, but pointed the Sentinel to the Track Your Ballot feature on the Division of Elections main page, which provides text message updates to registered voters who sign up.

The deadline is May 12 to register to vote or update your mailing information for the June 11 special primary. Mail-in ballots must be postmarked on or before June 11, and voters can also cast ballots in person 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays May 27 through June 10 (except Memorial Day) at Blatchley Middle School.

Legislators Struggling With Size of Dividend

By BECKY BOHRER
The Associated Press

JUNEAU (AP) — Alaska lawmakers are running out of time this session to pass legislation aimed at resolving the annual debate over what size dividend should be paid to residents from the state’s oil wealth fund.

Legislative leaders have said they see resolving the divisive debate as critical. But lawmakers have yet to agree on what a new formula should look like or on what other elements should accompany it, such as taxes. A dividend bill in the Senate was bumped from the floor for further work Wednesday when it lacked the votes to pass, Senate President Peter Micciche said.

Recent high oil prices have prompted rosy revenue forecasts after years of deficits, complicating any talk of taxes as part of a long-range fiscal plan. A working group tasked with making fiscal policy recommendations last year included such things as a new dividend formula, constitutional certainty around a dividend, new revenues and revised spending limits as necessary parts of a comprehensive plan.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, an Anchorage Democrat, said Thursday that he’s a “little less optimistic that we’ll get a plan or even an element of a plan this year ... but I have not given up.”

Less than two weeks remain in the session that began in January. All but one of the Legislature’s 60 seats are up for election this year. Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy is seeking reelection.

Micciche, a Soldotna Republican, said he will continue having discussions with colleagues to see if agreement can be reached on a dividend approach that could garner at least 11 votes, the minimum necessary for Senate passage.

Whether the bill resurfaces remains to be seen.

House Speaker Louise Stutes, a Kodiak Republican, told reporters last week that if a bill were to pass the Senate and be sent to the House, “we will address it to our best ability” in the time remaining in session.

Dividends traditionally have been paid using earnings from the oil wealth fund, the Alaska Permanent Fund. For years, the dividend was calculated using a formula based on an average of fund income. But in 2016, amid deficits, then-Gov. Bill Walker vetoed a portion of the amount available for checks. The next year, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that absent a constitutional amendment, dividends must compete for annual funding like other state programs.

Lawmakers have been setting the amounts, which ranged from a low of $992 to a high of $1,606 between the years of 2017 and 2021.

In 2018, the Legislature began using fund earnings to help pay for government in a state that has long relied on oil revenues. Lawmakers sought to limit annual withdrawals for dividends and government, adding to tensions over how the money should be divided between the two. Withdrawal amounts are based on a percentage of the fund’s market value. The limit for the upcoming fiscal year is about $3.4 billion.

Because of the 2017 court decision, some lawmakers contend the only way to resolve the dividend debate is with a constitutional amendment. Not all lawmakers think a dividend belongs in the constitution.

But without tying the dividend to the Constitution, “you’re really not doing anything. You just aren’t,” said Senate Majority Leader Shelley Hughes, a Palmer Republican who was part of the working group.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who in 2018 ran in support of a dividend in line with the old formula, has urged splitting the yearly withdrawals 50/50 between dividends and government. That approach would mean checks of about $2,500 this year.

Dunleavy also has pushed for a supplemental divided of about $1,250 this year as a way to help Alaskans with high fuel and food costs.

The working group composed of members from along the political spectrum recommended lawmakers “work towards” a formula that dedicates half the draw to dividends as part of a broader plan.

The Senate is expected to begin debate next week on a budget package that proposes a roughly $2,500 dividend this year, in line with a 50/50 approach. The budget that passed the House called for a roughly $1,250 dividend plus $1,300 as an energy relief payment.

While the total proposed amounts are similar, Stutes said a concern is whether lawmakers want to set a precedent in paying a dividend at the 50/50 level.

Senate Finance Committee Co-chair Bert Stedman said while oil prices currently are high, prices are volatile and the state has a wide range of obligations it has to meet.

The dividend bill that sputtered Wednesday called for 25% of the draw going toward dividends starting next year. It called for transitioning to 50% of the draw toward dividends in 2027 if the state revenue commissioner and Legislative Finance Division director by mid-December 2026 agreed that measures expected to generate at least $800 million in new annually recurring revenue had been enacted.

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AK COVID-19 
At a Glance

(updated 5-18-22)

By Sentinel Staff

The state Department of Health and Social Services has posted the following update on the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Alaska as of 11:55 pm Wednesday, May 18.

New cases as of Wednesday: 1,675

Total cases (cumulative) statewide – 249,522

Total (cumulative) deaths – 1,252

Total (cumulative) hospitalizations – 3,762

Current Hospitalizations – 44

To visit the Alaska DHSS Corona Response dashboard website click here.

COVID in Sitka

The Sitka community level is now "medium.'' Case statistics are as of Wednesday.

Cases in last 7 days – 54

Cumulative Sitka cases – 2,633

Hospitalizations (to date) – 32

Deceased (cumulative) – 6

The local case data are from Alaska DHSS.

  

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20 YEARS AGO
May 2002

Police blotter: Two juveniles who were seen throwing their belonging at each other were told to stop or face arrest. ... A woman was reported arguing with her husband and friends, all of whom agreed she had been drinking too much. ... A man said he thought a neighbor had his missing cat, but the neighbor showed police his cat and her six kittens. A watch will be kept for the missing cat.

 

50 YEARS AGO
May 2002

 There will not be a commercial herring spawn and help fishery in the Sitka area, Jim Parker, Fish & Game fisheries management biologist, announced.  There’s been good herring spawn but herring haven’t spawned in the macrocystis kelp beds.

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