Juneau, Alaska (Alaska Beacon) - The Alaska House of Representatives voted 38-1 on Wednesday to approve a fast-moving budget bill that spends as much as $365 million to cover a shortfall in state revenue caused by lower-than-expected oil prices.
The bill also includes $6.8 million to immediately address a crisis in the state’s food-stamp program. Staffing shortages have created huge delays for food-stamp recipients, and
The so-called “fast track” bill passed Wednesday covers expenses in the state budget through June 30. That means the money could be used immediately, instead of after July 1, the start of the new budget.
If the Legislature fails to approve the fast-track bill, it risks leaving the state without sufficient money to finish the budget year.
Other major items in the bill include funding for the two state agencies that provide criminal legal defense for Alaskans who cannot afford attorneys. Earlier this year, public defenders said they would begin refusing major criminal defense cases in Bethel and Nome because of understaffing. That could violate the Alaska Constitution, which mandates that the state provide criminal defense attorneys for people who cannot afford them.
The fast-track bill also covers a deficit created by lower-than-expected oil prices.
The deficit is approximately $247 million, said Rep. Delena Johnson, R-Palmer and co-chair of the House Finance Committee, but the bill also includes “a maximum of $115 million” to cover previously unforeseen expenses, including part of last year’s wildfire season.
House lawmakers voted down an amendment from Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, that would have added funding for prosecutors to begin immediately implementing a bill that redefines the definition of sexual assault.
Under the new definition, approved by lawmakers last year, a victim does not have to verbally say “no” in order for a crime to be classified as sexual assault.
Josephson’s amendment failed on a vote of 13-26, meaning that full enforcement may begin July 1 unless the Senate amends the bill.
Money to cover the costs of the bill will come from the state’s Constitutional Budget Reserve, a savings account that contains about $2 billion.
Spending from the reserve requires a three-quarters vote of the House and a three-quarters vote of the Senate.
The bill passed 38-1, with only Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, opposed. Rep. Josiah Patkotak, I-Utqiagvik, was excused absent.
The vote to spend from the budget reserve was 35-4, with Reps. Jamie Allard, R-Eagle River; Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski; Sarah Vance, R-Homer; and Eastman opposed.
The bill advances to the Senate, where lawmakers are expected to approve it.