Closed process on capital budget draws criticism

House page Laib Allensworth places copies of the capital budget on lawmakers desks in the Capitol on July 27. Rep. Dean Westlake, D-Kotzebue, reads in the background. (Photo by Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO)

When the state Legislature passed the capital budget on Thursday last week, it ended a negotiating process that largely occurred behind closed doors. That’s often the case for legislation that requires the Senate and the House to work out their differences.

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The Alaska House and Senate each passed different versions of the capital budget funding roads and other infrastructure this spring. But unlike in past years, they didn’t form a conference committee to find common ground until the end of July. 

On July 27, the Legislature returned to Juneau for its third special session. In five and a half hours, the two chambers met, formed a conference committee and passed the $1.4 billion capital budget. 

That pace and closed process upset some members of the Republican House minority caucus. During the capital budget debate in the House, North Pole Rep. Tammie Wilson said she had never seen anything like it. 

“We should be really concerned, because it’s a public process that we’re giving up – the public process of being able to testify on what’s in this budget,” Wilson said. 

It was unusual for lawmakers to meet on the capital budget outside of the legislative session. It’s not unusual that they resolved budget differences behind closed doors. 

Budget conference committee members usually meet privately to work out details. When they hold public meetings, it’s to vote on the compromises they’ve already reached.

On July 27, the committee unveiled the new $1.4 billion capital budget. In 29 minutes, the committee shot down some minority Republican amendments and moved the bill along.

Wilson said this week she hopes the Legislature finishes the capital budget much earlier next year – with a more open process. 

“Well, it’s always upsetting when it’s a closed-door deal, and that’s absolutely what it was,” Wilson said. “We weren’t called back until a deal was made. You could pretty much tell that when they met at 1 o’clock and within five or 10 minutes, you know, it was done. And I just don’t think that’s very fair to Alaskans – not to be able to take part.”

Lawmakers in both chambers heard public testimony on the capital budget before passing separate versions.

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Les Gara said the public and the minority also had more than a month to weigh in. And they were facing a deadline. 

Gov. Bill Walker’s administration was concerned construction projects would be delayed if the Legislature didn’t pass a capital budget by July 31. Gara also said lawmakers saved money from per diem expenses by negotiating outside of the session.

“The two choices were to sit down there, griping with each other with people collecting per diem in Juneau for a week or two as you haggled everything out, or to say, ‘Look, go home, don’t collect per diem. A sm – group of people will try to figure out a proposal and see if it gets enough votes.’ And that’s what happened,” Gara said.

Political scientist Clive Thomas, formerly with the University of Alaska Southeast, said the extraordinarily late capital budget was a factor in the closed process outside of Juneau. 

“Most capital budgets are usually dealt with by the end of the session, the first session – the end of the regular session – so, I’ve never known of this process before,” Thomas said.

Legislators spent the extended session and earlier special sessions with the operating budget and a bill overhauling oil and gas taxes.

Rep. Gara said he’d also like next year’s capital and operating budgets to be resolved sooner. But he says some lawmakers hold out in the hope that the other side will cave.

Andrew Kitchenman is the state government and politics reporter for Alaska Public Media and KTOO in Juneau. Reach him at

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