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House challenges Senate over capital projects

Reps decry inability to ‘spin’ story their way

Posted: May 4, 2011 - 8:15pm
Karen Rehfeld, Director of the Office of Management and Budget, answers questions in front of the House Finance Committee Wednesday as legislators ask what a delayed budget might mean to state construction projects.   Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Karen Rehfeld, Director of the Office of Management and Budget, answers questions in front of the House Finance Committee Wednesday as legislators ask what a delayed budget might mean to state construction projects.

Members of the House Finance committee held a press conference and the a committee hearing aimed at boosting their side in an ongoing capital budget stalemate with the Senate, and complained about their inability to “spin” the story to their advantage.

House Finance Committee Co-Chair Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, said he might bear some of the blame.

“I’m not very good at press myself, some people are adept at it and that’s probably things are being spun the way they are,” he said.

The Senate has included in the $2.7 billion capital budget “contingency” language linking together $400 million in energy projects. Senators said they fear Gov. Sean Parnell would veto projects in retaliation for their refusal to pass an oil tax cut, and have attempted to tie their projects to ones Parnell favors to protect them.

Parnell’s allies in the House say that’s an unconstitutional infringement on the governor’s line-item veto power, and say they’ll never pass a budget including contingency language.

“If I think its unconstitutional, how do I press the green button” (to vote for the bill), asked Rep. Anna Fairclough, vice-chair of the House Finance Committee.

Stoltze, Fairclough, and others said it was the Senate’s fault, not theirs, that construction projects needed to boost the economy were at risk of being delayed if they missed the summer construction season.

Fairclough asked agency staff to help them with a “sound bite” that would help the House persuade the public the Senate was at fault.

“We need that three-word sound bite to respond,” she said.

Representatives of the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities said getting project funding earlier would be helpful, but partially agreed with Democrats that many projects were already in the pipeline.

DOT Administrative Manager Laura Baker called it a “very complex issue,” and said the department was still unsure how much unspent money was in various accounts that could be tapped.

Money appropriated for a bridge project can’t be moved to a road project, even if the bridge project hasn’t happened, she said.

“Not all of it right now is in our database where the department can say, ‘here’s what’s on the books,’” she said.

Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines, said there was about $1.5 billion in Southeast projects awaiting construction, but “I’m not to hung up on it,” he said.

Thomas also said he wished the Senate would stop playing games with the budget.

“My blood pressure is up to 140 because of this whole episode,” he said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 586-4816 or Patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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