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Top lawyers debate controversial bill provisions

Dueling attorneys dispute Senate’s ‘contingency’ language

Posted: May 11, 2011 - 8:48pm

The Alaska Legislature’s top lawyer, Doug Gardner, used the City and Borough of Juneau’s Snettisham Hydroelectric Project to describe the constitutional question facing the state’s leaders.

Senators worried Gov. Sean Parnell will retaliate against them for failing to pass the oil tax cut he badly wants have tried to bind $450 million in energy projects together with contingency language. That would stop Parnell from vetoing a single one of those projects with out eliminating all of them.

Parnell’s attorney general told the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday the Senate’s linking the projects together was an attempt to get around the governor’s constitutional authority to veto individual items.

“The Senate clearly intended to constrain the power of the executive branch,” he said.

Gardner, though, said the Legislature did have that authority in some circumstances, and used the Snettisham example.

“Imagine the Snettisham Hydroelectric Project,” said Gardner, the director of the Legislative Affairs Agency’s Division of Legal and Research Services.

Suppose the Legislature wanted to fund the Snettisham power plant, transmission lines, undersea cable and distribution system.

Under that hypothetical, he said, the Legislature wouldn’t want to fund any of that unless it was all funded because it couldn’t be used unless it was all built.

“It would be hard to conceive of a situation where the Legislature would want to approve the dam and substation, without the undersea cable,” Gardner said.

During the administration of former Gov. Tony Knowles, the governor and Legislature wound up having a similar debate, he said.

The Alaska Supreme Court upheld the use of contingency provisions in appropriation bills, he said.

“The Supreme Court suggested contingency would be appropriate if the projects were closely related,” Gardner said.

He did not say he was absolutely certain the current language would be upheld, however. It is difficult for lawyers to solve a political conundrum, he said.

“I recognize there is an alternative view,” he said.

That came from Burns, who said that to him it was clear the Legislature couldn’t limit the governor’s veto power.

It’s clear that’s what the language put in by the Senate does, he said, and that’s not appropriate.

“Politics must always yield to the constitutional provisions and principles that govern the administration of our state,” Burns said.

House leaders who will craft its version of the operating budget were allied with the governor on oil taxes and in the debate over contingency language. After this week’s approval by the Senate of the capital budget, the House will now draft its version.

House Finance Committee Co-chairman Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, said he expects that budget to be released this afternoon.

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

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