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Alaska Senate passes supplemental spending bill; sign of progress in special legislative session

Posted: April 20, 2011 - 9:26pm
The Senate Finance Committee meets to take up a bill involving the proposed Susitna dam project on Tuesday, April 19, 2011, in Juneau, Alaska. The bill was among 10 on the special session call sheet. Budgets are among the big, still-unresolved items, though, and Sens. Bert Stedman, at the head of the table, and Lyman Hoffman, on the right, are negotiators on the budget. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer)   Becky Bohrer
Becky Bohrer
The Senate Finance Committee meets to take up a bill involving the proposed Susitna dam project on Tuesday, April 19, 2011, in Juneau, Alaska. The bill was among 10 on the special session call sheet. Budgets are among the big, still-unresolved items, though, and Sens. Bert Stedman, at the head of the table, and Lyman Hoffman, on the right, are negotiators on the budget. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer)

JUNEAU — The Alaska Senate passed a $158 million supplemental spending bill Wednesday, a sign of progress — and good faith — in the hurry-up-and-wait special legislative session.

Talks also continued in hopes of breaching the impasse over the capital budget, with the Senate showing willingness to discuss contingency language that had led to the impasse with the House and the current special session.

Senate President Gary Stevens said there were options on the table that could lead to the lawmakers finishing their work by the weekend and others that could have them still in session next week. He declined to be more specific.

“All I can tell you right now is, we’re meeting,” he said.

When it comes to the supplemental, Senate negotiators wanted assurances from the House that the spending bill wouldn’t be changed. While the more contentious items had been stripped from the plan, there remained the possibility the House would graft onto the bill its own version of a capital budget.

House Speaker Mike Chenault, who met with Senate leaders on the issue, said he doubted there would be any changes to it. Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines and co-chair of the House Finance Committee, said an agreement had been made and he expected the committee to pass the bill, without amendment, Thursday.

The committee heard the bill Wednesday afternoon, shortly after the Senate passed it and legislative leaders met behind closed doors.

The Legislature has been steadily clearing its slate of the more routine, less controversial items on its 10-bill special session call sheet so attention can be focused solely on the big ones: the operating and capital budgets. As of Wednesday afternoon, it had passed three of the bills and a conference committee had come to agreement on a fourth, dealing with extension of the Regulatory Commission of Alaska.

The operating budget is the only bill on the call sheet that the Legislature must pass, and it contains some touchy pieces, such as $400 million for an endowment for an energy assistance program and $60 million for a ferry replacement fund. The Senate considers these savings, but the House has taken issue with that characterization and whether that much money should be put toward those specific items.

Assuming the House passes the supplemental bill, which covers unanticipated costs in the current fiscal year, the only bills left on the call sheet — after concurrence on the regulatory commission extension — will be the budgets and bills addressing coastal management and establishing a long-term fund for the governor’s merit scholarship program.

The scholarship bill could be a nonstarter: While it passed the House, it did not identify a funding source, and Senate Finance Committee co-chairman Bert Stedman, who has concerns with the program and whether students will have equal access to it, has said he has no interest in advancing the bill from his committee.

Money for the first year of the program is expected to be included in the operating budget. House and Senate negotiators just need to agree on how much. Gov. Sean Parnell wanted $8.2 million, the House has proposed $8 million and the Senate, $1.1 million.

Then there’s coastal management. The program, which many rural lawmakers consider broken, is set to expire by July 1, and the Senate, in its version of the operating budget, eliminated funding for it. That means, a bill would need to pass for the program, in some form, to continue.

The House passed what Parnell’s administration billed as a delicate balance among the interests of the oil, gas and mining industry, coastal communities who want a greater say in development decisions and the state’s desire for economic development. The Senate Finance Committee is expected to unveil its own version as early as Thursday.

The House would have to agree to any changes the Senate made, but the pressure ultimately would be on Parnell. While he could veto a bill he doesn’t like, that would leave him with no bill, and no program, as it currently stands.

Progress continues to be made on the operating budget, with House and Senate negotiators agreeing Wednesday to provide $2.4 million for preliminary startup costs for the Goose Creek Correctional Center. The House had proposed $3.6 million and the Senate, nothing, amid concerns about the prison’s costs and desire for an audit.

Thomas views the funding as a sign the Legislature can’t simply ignore the prison. He said that if the funding isn’t enough, lawmakers can always address it in a supplemental next session.

The conference committee has meetings scheduled through Friday. Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, and a member of the committee, expressed frustration with the overall situation, saying a third-party should be brought in to try to mediate differences on the capital budget.

Contingency language in the capital budget remained a sticking point Wednesday. It was added by the Senate Finance Committee and intended, in large part, to protect energy projects from the governor’s veto threats over the Senate’s failure to pass a bill addressing oil taxes.

Stedman said that as far as he knows, members of the Senate’s bipartisan majority, of which he’s a part, like the language. But Chenault said he viewed the Senate’s willingness to finally discuss the language as positive.

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