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Alaska's Legislature, Gov. Parnell face regrouping after abrupt, messy end to special session

Posted: May 15, 2011 - 8:44pm

JUNEAU — Saturday’s abrupt end to the special legislative session has almost certainly doomed Alaska’s coastal management program.

It resulted in a capital budget higher than Gov. Sean Parnell had indicated he’d be willing to accept, and raised questions about whether all sides would be able to work together to tackle the major issues that will be facing the state next year.

“I don’t think it’s all that unusual to have a messy end” to a session, said Steve Haycox, a University of Alaska Anchorage history professor who’s observed Alaska politics for decades. “But there’s less to celebrate this time than normally.”

After 117 days of meeting — including the regular and special sessions — the GOP-led House decided enough was enough and adjourned out from under the Senate. Parnell refused Senate requests to try to stop them.

The House move was strategic and bold. No chamber can adjourn for more than three days without the other side’s consent. But since Tuesday marked the official end of the 30-day session, the House could adjourn Saturday without the risk of being called back.

The move also avoided a conference committee on the capital budget, which Speaker Mike Chenault feared would have resulted in the entire budget being reopened for debate and would have hung up again on the same arguments that led to the initial impasse between the House and Senate and to the special session.

Chenault, R-Nikiski, said after adjourning that he didn’t “feel real good right now,” but that he believed the House had done the work it was called to do and did not “cut and run.”

“In my opinion, if we would’ve stayed three more days or 30 more days, we would still be in the same position that we were (in) yesterday,” he said.

Senate President Gary Stevens referred to the House’s actions as a “dump and run.” He said his chamber took the “high road” in seeking to find a compromise on a budget bill that in total size was comparable to the Senate’s version but was structured differently and had some add-on projects.

He said the Senate accepted the budget — which it had railed against hours before — because it felt it was the right thing to do for Alaska.

The House adjourned after falling one vote shy of passing a compromise on coastal management.

For years, rural lawmakers have called for changes to the program to allow those communities greater say in resource development decisions that could affect their way of life, particularly with the future potential for offshore drilling.

The current program is set to expire by July 1.

Parnell asked the Senate — in a late-night email Thursday — to pass a House version of the bill. It was cast as compromise that would give communities a voice but not let them impede development projects the state deemed to be in Alaska’s best interests.

Critics said the bill was vaguely written and allowed the state to retain considerable sway.

The Senate refused, passing its own version that, among other things, removed definitions for local knowledge and scientific evidence.

The conference committee, working off the Senate bill, tinkered with the language and reached what Sen. Bill Wielechowski and other negotiators thought was a compromise that would carry both chambers.

Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, was unable to conceal his anger that the House adjourned rather than to try to seek another compromise. Chenault said the Senate rejected an offer to add the changed language to the House bill.

Wielechowski said without a program, “the state has lost the ability to get local input, to have local input on these important decisions. We’ve lost state control.”

Rep. Bob Herron, D-Bethel and a member of the House’s GOP-led majority, said Sunday that lawmakers routinely rail against the federal government for overreaching and stepping on state’s rights.

“But on this one,” he said, “we’re basically sending a memo to the federal government, OK, federal government. Take over.”

The opt-in program allows states to put conditions on certain activities on federal lands and waters. Without the program, Alaska loses its ability to “shape activities and development” in those areas, said Joe Balash, a deputy commissioner for the Department of Natural Resources.

But he said it’s not the only tool the state has to “ensure development occurs responsibly in Alaska.”

Funding for more than 30 jobs was tied to the bill that failed. Balash said the administration was looking at ways that some of those individuals could be used elsewhere.

Parnell has given no indication he’d call a special session on the issue.

Parnell also hasn’t said exactly what he’ll do with the budget. On Sunday, his spokeswoman, Sharon Leighow, said he needs time to review it but “anticipates being able to reduce the spending as he did in the prior year while still meeting the infrastructure needs of the state.”

Parnell had told lawmakers he’d let them spend $2.8 billion if they also passed a bill addressing oil taxes. They didn’t.

That bill stalled in the Senate, where leaders added language binding energy projects into an as-is, all-or-nothing package to protect them from vetoes. Some senators worried their projects would be targeted for their failure to support the tax cut. Parnell repeatedly said he wouldn’t abuse his veto authority.

That language, which led to the special session, was stripped from the budget by the House after it finally got the bill on Tuesday.

While all sides have sought to claim accomplishments, “I can’t see anybody coming out of this winning anything,” said Clive Thomas, a longtime observer of Alaska politics who’s writing a book on politics.

Haycox said the governor “gets egg on his face” for not showing the kind of leadership necessary to help the House and Senate out of the budget mess.

While Parnell seemed to enjoy a solid relationship with the House during both sessions, he took repeated swipes at the Senate’s bipartisan majority bloc, including on Saturday night when House and Senate leaders sought to end the ordeal on a conciliatory note.

Haycox also faulted the Senate for not trying to end the budget standoff sooner.

The Senate unveiled its version of the budget April 11. After refusing to advance it without agreement with the House on its size and structure, it finally did so Tuesday — with no such agreement.

“The general public is not going to see much positive here,” he said.

Given the billions of dollars the state has in budget reserves, people take the capital budget for granted, he said. He believes the public will feel let down that lawmakers didn’t show more “statesmanship.”

“The only people I see coming out of this is the leadership in the House,” Haycox said.

He believes they deserve credit for saying, “enough is enough. We’re getting out of this now.”

House and Senate leaders both acknowledged mistakes but said they intended to look for ways to move ahead.

The Legislature could face some serious policy questions — including whether to abandon a major natural gas pipeline in favor of a smaller instate line. The oil tax debate is expected to be revived as well.

Thomas had some advice for the governor and leadership: “In politics, you don’t make enemies unless you want to make them permanent, because you may need them next week.”

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