Despite budget talks, House minority leader says a deal doesn't seem any closer



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    JUNEAU, Alaska — With negotiations seemingly stalled, the House Finance Committee introduced legislation that still would allow lawmakers access to the constitutional budget reserve fund to balance the state budget if they cannot secure support from minority Democrats.

    Failure to reach agreement on the budget last month sent the Legislature into overtime, and on Tuesday, House Minority Leader Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, said he didn't think lawmakers were any closer to a deal.

    The state is facing multibillion-dollar budget deficits amid low oil prices, and needs to use savings to get by. While the state has various pots of money available, the constitutional budget reserve is seen by legislative leaders as the preferred fund to tap.

    Generally, a three-quarters vote in each the House and Senate is needed to access the fund. But the House has been unable to reach that threshold of support, with minority Democrats opposing proposed cuts to education and to union worker pay increases, among other things.

    Republican legislative leaders ideally would like to get a budget passed by early next week, to prevent notices from having to go out warning state workers of possible layoffs if a budget isn't passed by July 1. They're looking at other options in case they can't get the three-quarters vote, including an accounting maneuver that would make the reserve fund accessible by a simple majority.

    Under the constitution, the fund can be tapped by a simple majority — 21 in the House, 11 in the Senate — if the amount available to spend for a fiscal year is less than the amount spent in the prior year. But for that option to be available, money in other savings accounts would have to be put off limits.

    The House Finance bill would move $4.9 billion from the earnings reserve account of the Permanent Fund into the principal of the fund, which is constitutionally protected, making that money unavailable for use next year. It also would shelter a fund set aside for student scholarships.

    The Permanent Fund earnings reserve account totals about $9.1 billion. That is the pool from which the annual dividends that most Alaskans receive are derived. The chief financial officer for the Alaska Permanent Fund Corp. told legislative leaders in a letter dated Thursday that the proposal would not appear to affect dividends in coming years, based on projections.

    Six members of the Republican-led House majority have told House Speaker Mike Chenault they oppose such a move, creating a potential wrinkle. Twenty-six of the House's 40 members are in the majority. One Republican, Lora Reinbold, does not belong to a caucus after being booted from the majority for not supporting the budget earlier this year.

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