- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 12, 2015

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - Alaska lawmakers finished their annual legislative session just over two weeks ago, but that meant passing a partially funded state budget and putting off a decision on expanding Medicaid, a priority of Gov. Bill Walker.

An impasse remained halfway through a 30-day special session called by Walker to address those issues. A frustrated Walker told reporters from Anchorage that lawmakers are playing a game of chicken on the budget.

On Tuesday, six of the House’s 40 members and three of the Senate’s 20 members were in Juneau for brief floor sessions to satisfy meeting requirements. With nothing to vote on, attendance wasn’t mandatory.

The Senate adjourned until Friday, the House until Saturday.

The Legislature voted April 30 for an 11-day recess in floor sessions in part to provide a cooling off period and to allow lawmakers to return to their districts to meet with constituents. The House Finance Committee has been holding budget and Medicaid hearings in Anchorage, and while some legislators not on that committee have attended, others have scattered.

The special session is limited to issues on the call - the budget, Medicaid and a bill calling for sexual assault prevention and awareness programs in schools. Many legislators are not on committees hearing those bills.

Senate Finance, which has the budget and Medicaid, has held two hearings during the special session, both on the budget and none since May 4. The Senate Education Committee, which has the school bill, hasn’t met. The House previously passed that bill.

Aside from the budget, legislators aren’t obligated to pass items on the call.

Minority Democrats, grumbling about a lack of progress, plan their own hearings. But Senate Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, said that’s not negotiating. One reason the Senate has held off on budget hearings is to see if the House majority and minority can reach agreement among themselves, he said.

In the House, support is needed from the Democratic-led minority to access a reserve fund to cover costs of government. But the minority wants funding restored for education and opposes the rejection of pay increases in union contracts for next year, among other things. Democrats also want expanded Medicaid.

Republicans have balked at adding to the budget, given the huge deficits the state faces amid low oil prices, and have resisted minority proposals, such as revisiting oil tax credits, to help offset Democratic proposals. Coghill said the Senate is willing to be flexible but that needs to work both ways.

Walker said the administration has spent time preparing for what would happen if there isn’t a fully funded budget for the new fiscal year, looking at when money would run out and how to prepare for a possible government shutdown. Walker has until next Tuesday to decide what to do with the budget passed by legislators in late April.

He said in an interview that if he vetoes it, there’s no budget starting July 1 and it shortens the timeframe for a deal. But if he doesn’t, it sets a bad precedent of accepting an underfunded budget, he said.

He said he offered help in negotiations during a meeting with members of the Senate majority and House minority but, “My recollection, is they both sort of said, We’ll take it from here.”

Rep. Sam Kito III, D-Juneau, in a floor speech Tuesday, said having people together in the capital city to talk and work together is the surest way to get agreement.

House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, told reporters talks have been taking place with the House minority, Senate and governor’s office, including face-to-face meetings in Anchorage.

Renovation work is underway at the Capitol. Kito and other members of the Juneau delegation have said there are alternate office and meeting spaces available in Juneau for the session, if needed.

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