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Three things to watch for in the state Legislature

Posted: April 1, 2013 - 12:02am

JUNEAU — For those who think the pace of this year’s legislative session has been swift: Watch out, because the proceedings are set to pick up even more speed.

Once a conference committee is named on the state operating budget — and that could happen as early as this week — the Legislature will fall under what’s known as the “24-hour rule.”

That means committee meetings can be held with 24 hours of advance notice. During session, schedules are generally posted by late Thursday for the following week, giving notice of at least a few days.

And as the scheduled adjournment date of April 14 gets closer, take note of the ubiquitous “bills previously heard/scheduled,” which often appear on the schedule now and serve as a catch-all for bills a committee can take up.

All that said, here are three things to watch for this week:

Capital budget

The much-anticipated Senate version of the capital budget is expected this week. But first, public testimony on the governor’s proposal is scheduled for Monday.

Legislative leaders have done their best to downplay expectations for next year’s spending package, amid concerns about declining oil production, a desire to rein in overall spending and a recognition that an oil tax cut as currently proposed could cost the state up to $2.4 billion through 2016, based on the last forecast for oil prices and production.

Gov. Sean Parnell has said he expects to use savings to help absorb the near-term hit, with the expectation that any tax cut will lead to more investment and production. In the meantime, he and legislative leaders are warning of a coming round of belt-tightening — and cuts — with the hope, as Sen. Pete Kelly said, “to get out the other side and find that there’s more money.”

The capital budget has traditionally included infrastructure projects and community wish-list items, but Sen. Kevin Meyer, who oversees the capital budget on the Senate side, said the plan is to move away from funding smaller projects, like playground equipment.

Meyer, R-Anchorage, and Kelly’s co-chair on Senate Finance, said he’s looking at a geographic balance in projects, what projects might be critical, finishing projects that are under way and maintaining assets. He said Alaskans should expect a much smaller budget than in recent years. The capital budget has been at least $2 billion since fiscal year 2005, according to the Legislative Finance Division.

Parnell proposed a $1.9 billion capital budget, $799 million of which is unrestricted general funds. Parnell has proposed an overall spending cap of about $6.8 billion in unrestricted general funds for next year. That fund designation refers to money not restricted in its use by things like the constitution or state law. The version of the operating budget that the Senate passed last week totaled $9.9 billion, $5.8 billion of which was unrestricted general funds.

Oil taxes

A group opposed to the proposed oil tax overhaul plans to hold rallies in Juneau, Anchorage and Fairbanks on Thursday, as the House continues work on SB21. Backbone, a nonpartisan group formed in 1999 to fight a huge oil merger in Alaska, is organizing the “Stop the Giveaway” rallies, and urging Alaskans in other communities to gather together at the same time to show opposition to the bill.

Supporters of SB21 say the state cannot stand by and do nothing while oil production continues to decline. While oil companies have made no commitments, supporters say they believe the plan will make Alaska more competitive — something that consultants have also told lawmakers — and should lead to more production. Critics, including members of Backbone, see the plan as dangerous gamble.

Rep. Eric Feige, co-chair of the House Resources Committee, said he plans to advance the committee’s version of the bill as early as Wednesday. “When it leaves committee, it will be floor ready, in my opinion,” he said.

SB21 has one additional stop before the floor — House Finance.

In-state gas line

Senate President Charlie Huggins said there’s a high likelihood that HB4, a bill meant to advance an in-state gas pipeline project, will get two committees of referral in the Senate — once it reaches the Senate. It is still under consideration in the House, with just two full weeks left in the regular session. But Huggins, R-Wasilla, said he might assign the bill only to Senate Finance.

Huggins said he’d prefer to have more time with the large bill, aimed at empowering the group behind the gas line project and getting the project to an open season, at which point the level of interest in the project could be determined. But he said the bill has gotten some “good looks,” and he said he was confident the legislature could wrap its work up on time. He added that he is the “eternal optimist.”

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