- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 28, 2017

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - The Alaska House majority leader said Tuesday that focusing on the use of earnings from Alaska’s oil-wealth fund would be the “easy route” in addressing the state’s multibillion-dollar budget deficit.

Rep. Chris Tuck, an Anchorage Democrat, said Alaskans don’t want to see that happen without oil taxes also being addressed.

Use of Alaska Permanent Fund earnings to help pay for state government is seen by many as virtually a foregone conclusion as the state grapples with a deficit exacerbated by chronically low oil prices.

But Tuck said the House majority, composed largely of Democrats, doesn’t want to burden one group over another.

Senate Majority Leader Peter Micciche has said he would consider the session a success if lawmakers pass state operating and infrastructure budgets and legislation calling for structured draws from permanent fund earnings.

The Soldotna Republican said permanent fund legislation would go far in addressing the deficit and that lawmakers could discuss later issues that are more politically divisive, like taxes.

Efforts to reach agreement on a fiscal plan were marred by gridlock last year.

House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, a Dillingham Democrat, noted that next year is an election year and said his caucus’ focus remains on a comprehensive fiscal plan.

Several bills are pending that call for annual draws from permanent fund earnings based on a percentage of the fund’s market value. The bills also would change how the annual dividends that Alaskans receive from the fund are calculated.

In addition to use of permanent fund earnings, the House is pursuing changes to oil tax and credit policy and a state income tax, while Senate leaders have set a goal of cutting another $750 million from the budget over three years and placing a new limit on future spending.

Late Tuesday afternoon, during preliminary deliberations on the operating budget, the House Finance Committee, in a split along caucus lines, voted for an amendment to use fund earnings to pay for education and help pay for state government next year.

Republican Rep. Mark Neuman called the move a ploy to avoid use of a state reserve fund that would require support from minority Republicans to tap.

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