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High drama as session ends early

Posted: May 15, 2011 - 12:28am
House Speaker Mike Chenault presides over the House during the special session over the budget impasse on Saturday in Juneau.  Becky Bohrer/The Associated Press
Becky Bohrer/The Associated Press
House Speaker Mike Chenault presides over the House during the special session over the budget impasse on Saturday in Juneau.

JUNEAU — The special session came to a dramatic end late Saturday, with the Alaska House adjourning three days early amid a month-long budget dispute with the Senate.

The move forced the Senate either to accept the House's version of the omnibus capital bill or to let the state go without the budget. The Senate agreed to it — in spite of concerns voiced by leadership over its structure and inclusion of certain projects.

Senate President Gary Stevens said it was a tough decision to make but in the end, taking the House bill was the right thing to do.

Lost in the shuffle was the coastal management program. The House failed to accept a compromise crafted by a conference committee working off a Senate version of the bill and Speaker Mike Chenault said the Senate refused to accept a compromise that would have been based on the House's version. That means that unless the governor calls a special session to deal with the issue, and he's given no indication he will, the program — and more than 30 jobs — will end by July 1.

Chenault said he didn't feel good about that or about the House leaving early; he had said repeatedly that he had no intention of cutting and running. But he said he didn't see the debate advancing much more if the House had stuck around until the end of session.

It was a drama-filled end to what had been an at-times frustratingly slow special session, which was sparked by an impasse between the House and Senate over the capital budget. The end came on the 27th day of the 30-day session, and the timing was key: it meant the House would not be at risk of being called back by the Senate if it decided to gavel out first.

The day began with Senate leaders saying they wanted to take the capital budget to conference committee. The House, which passed its version of the bill late Friday, refused, and didn't send the bill to the Senate until Saturday, after gaveling out until January. That meant the Senate wouldn't have the opportunity to force the bill to conference.

For weeks, House leaders and Gov. Sean Parnell called on the Senate majority to follow the legislative process, send a budget bill to the House and iron out the differences in conference if necessary. The Senate Finance Committee, which had refused to advance a bill without agreement from the House on its size and structure, finally passed it out Tuesday — which Sen. Bert Stedman said was more than enough time for the House to hold hearings, pass the bill and allow for a conference.

But patience had worn out — and Chenault said there was no guarantee that House and Senate leaders would advance past the same arguments they've had for weeks. He said it was "time to go home."

One of the biggest differences in the budget bills is the House stripped Senate language binding about $400 million in energy projects into an as-is, all-or-nothing package. House leaders considered the language inappropriate, if not an infringement upon the governor's veto authority. Senate leaders saw it as being in line with the Legislature's appropriations powers.

Stedman, R-Sitka, said the language — which for weeks had been the stumbling block — would have been on the table for discussion again. He said there would have been no "sacred cows."

The overall sizes of the omnibus bills passed by the House and Senate are comparable — in the range of $3.8 billion — and the amount of surplus left over is almost exact. But the structures of the bills are different.

The House bill has operating items that Senate leaders felt should have been in the operating budget. And the bill included $200 million for an instate natural gas pipeline fund, a priority for Chenault, and $400 million for student scholarships and aid, a priority for Parnell. House members couldn't get those two — which were characterized as savings — added to the operating budget.

While the Senate had $400 million for scholarships and student aid, too, it proposed reaching that number through different funding means. On the pipeline issue, Stedman said there had been no decision made by the Legislature on whether to pursue an in-state gas project, making that set-aside premature.

Capital appropriations in the House bill total about $3.2 billion. After both chambers adjourned late Saturday, Stedman called it a "good budget," all-in-all, and reasonably sized.

The governor had said he'd let the Legislature spend $2.8 billion on the capital budget if the Legislature also passed a bill addressing oil taxes during the regular session. It didn't; that bill stalled in the Senate, prompting the contingency language that Senate leaders felt was necessary to protect their energy projects from being vetoed.

Parnell has said he will not abuse his veto authority. He has not yet said how deeply he might cut the budget.

The governor, who's had an at-times prickly, if not adversarial, relationship with the Senate this year, said he was pleased by some accomplishments by lawmakers that he said will "foster economic growth and create opportunities for Alaska families."

But even as House and Senate sought to strike a conciliatory tone when all was said and done, Parnell said took a parting shot at Senate leaders. He said he shared frustration that it took so long to get to this point — attributing the overtime session to "unconstitutional budget language pushed by the Senate Majority."


 

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