Alaska governor offers help in brokering fiscal fix

By Becky Bohrer, Associated Press

With Alaska legislative leaders at odds over how to best address the state's multibillion-dollar deficit, Gov. Bill Walker on Tuesday offered his help in hopes of nudging talks forward.

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker addresses reporters during a news conference Tuesday, April 18, 2017, in Juneau, Alaska. During the news conference, Walker reiterated his call for a plan this year to fix Alaska's deficit. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer)

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — With Alaska legislative leaders at odds over how to best address the state's multibillion-dollar deficit, Gov. Bill Walker on Tuesday offered his help in hopes of nudging talks forward.

Walker said he has invited House and Senate leadership to the governor's mansion Wednesday to begin looking for areas of common ground.

The Legislature has extended beyond a voter-approved 90-day session limit, with a budget and fiscal plan unresolved. The constitution allows for regular sessions of up to 121 days, which would extend into mid-May.

While there's general agreement about using earnings from Alaska's oil-wealth fund, the permanent fund, to fill a large chunk of the deficit, there is disagreement about what else should be done.

The House majority, composed largely of Democrats, conditioned approval of permanent fund legislation on passage of a broad-based tax capable of generating at least $650 million a year and a rewrite of oil tax and credit policy.

Caucus leaders on Tuesday showed no signs of yielding in their position. Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, one of three Republicans in the House majority, said the GOP-led Senate has "another thing coming" if it believes a permanent fund bill alone will suffice.

Meanwhile, Senate leaders, who have advocated for continued budget cuts and limits on future spending in addition to structured use of permanent fund earnings, have said they aren't interested in a House proposal to implement a personal income tax. They also don't want to raise taxes on the oil industry.

Senate Majority Leader Peter Micciche said differences between the two sides jeopardize passage of permanent fund legislation that is seen a cornerstone of any fiscal plan. The Soldotna Republican sees positive signs in improved oil prices and production.

Walker, a Republican turned independent, appears to be more in line with the House majority in seeking a more comprehensive fiscal plan that includes a broad-based tax. He said such a tax is needed to close the deficit.

The state, which has long relied on oil revenue to fund government, has been grappling with how to pull itself out of a deficit amid low oil prices.

Walker said that what the House and Senate ultimately do is up to them but the message he said wants to impress is that it's "not about what we want to do, but what we have to do."

"I have been where they are, as far as having to make decisions that go against what I personally feel comfortable with doing," Walker said.

He cited as an example his decision last year, in the absence of a fiscal plan, to cut the amount of money available for the annual dividends Alaskans receive from the permanent fund.

Senate President Pete Kelly, a Fairbanks Republican, said disagreements between the Senate and House are not new. While Walker has a role to play, it will be up to the House and Senate to come to terms, Kelly said.

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