Legislative session over with major legislation passed

Rep. Munoz among those who switched vote to pass oil tax bill

The 2013 legislative session in Juneau ended shortly before midnight Sunday, capping an active 90-day session that saw lawmakers pass bills to cut oil production taxes, relax wastewater discharge restrictions on cruise ships, advance plans for a small-diameter gas pipeline and more.


Business on the last day of session moved at an unusually relaxed pace, as legislators finished their work on controversial oil tax reform relatively early in the day before passing a state budget and several lower-profile pieces of legislation.

Early Sunday morning, at the end of a legislative day that began Saturday, the House of Representatives passed Senate Bill 21, Republican Gov. Sean Parnell’s legislation to slash oil taxes in the hopes of spurring more production on the North Slope. The 27-12 vote fell mostly along caucus lines, with three Democrats who caucus with the majority defecting on the second and final vote.

Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau, joined Democrats in voting against the bill on the first vote, which saw the bill pass 24-15.

Muñoz said Sunday evening that she felt a number of provisions in the bill, such as its open-ended definition of “new oil” for the purposes of tax breaks, could have been better honed if lawmakers had more time to work on it.

But on the vote for reconsideration, generally considered the final vote on passage for the legislative record, Munoz and two other Republicans that had originally voted “nay” switched their votes to be in favor.

“As soon as I voted (against S.B. 21), then, you know, I was struck by just how enormous the problem that we face is with the decline of oil production,” Muñoz explained Sunday evening. When a reconsideration vote was called, she continued, “At that moment, I voted ‘yes,’ recognizing that we’ve got a serious problem. Does this bill get the result that we need? I’m not sure of that. And that’s why I voted ‘no’ on the first vote.”

The Senate concurred with the House’s changes to the bill Sunday afternoon in a 12-8 vote.

On Sunday night, the House and Senate voted unanimously to approve Senate Bill 18, the $2.29 billion — or $1.03 billion, if only unrestricted general funds are considered — state capital budget. That bill also includes $929.1 million in federal funds, with the remainder being general funds or other state funds.

Approval of S.B. 18, which contains funding for the Juneau Access Road, the State Library Archives Museum and numerous other capital projects around the state, came after both chambers adopted a compromise state operating budget totaling almost $9.86 billion — more than $10.2 billion, once fiscal notes from other bills are considered.

“I don’t remember a time … when I’ve seen two unanimous votes on both the operating and the capital budget,” said House Minority Leader Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau. “It’s kind of a remarkable thing to come off especially some very difficult and very divided issues this session, to take those two unanimous votes. And I think it says a lot about Alaskans, and I think it says a lot about all of us.”

The budget passed for fiscal year 2014 is among the smallest in years. Republican lawmakers like Kodiak Rep. Alan Austerman, co-chairman of the House Finance Committee, warned that the state’s conservative budgeting — a reaction to declining state revenues, which S.B. 21 will exacerbate in the short term but which supporters of oil tax reform say they hope will reverse as lower oil taxes entice companies to produce more oil in Alaska — is a sign of things to come.

“I think we did quite well in the long term, setting things up for what it’s going to look like in the future and letting people know that we’re serious about trying to get … balance in our budget and maintain a sustainable budget,” Austerman said of the operating budget on the House floor Sunday.

Among the other bills passed by the Legislature in the final hours of session was House Bill 104, which moves up the date of the state primary election — hereto the fourth Tuesday of August — by one week. The Senate voted 16-4 to approve the bill shortly before it adjourned for the year.

Senate Bill 95, which provides for certain state employees to receive a geographic pay differential, was perhaps the largest source of drama during the final legislative day after the passage of S.B. 21.

S.B. 95 ultimately passed the House by a wide margin, 32-7. But that vote came after hours of touch-and-go on the House floor, with bill manager Muñoz working the room and the hallway outside during lengthy pauses in the proceedings to line up support for the bill from her colleagues.

The House also passed Senate Bill 7, Anchorage Republican Sen. Cathy Giessel’s bill to reduce the corporate income tax, on a 31-4 vote.

Several pieces of legislation passed this year garnered a high profile as they advanced through the Legislature.

Parnell’s bill to allow cruise ship mixing zones drew the ire of environmental groups like Responsible Cruising of Alaska, while the governor and other supporters rationalized it as bringing cruise ship wastewater regulations in line with those for other vessels. Although Democrats decried the speed with which House Bill 80 advanced through committee, it passed the Legislature and Parnell signed it into law in February.

House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, and Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, prefiled House Bill 4 before the legislative session began. While the original bill, which brings the Alaska Gasline Development Corp. out from the umbrella of the Alaska Housing Finance Corp. and empowers it to plan, finance and build an in-state natural gas pipeline, failed to get Parnell’s support, changes made in the committee process softened the governor’s opposition. Despite an advertising campaign by the city of Valdez to stop H.B. 4, the bill passed with wide majorities in the House and Senate and is set to become law.

Senate Bill 23, which authorizes the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority to help set up a liquefied natural gas trucking operation in the Interior, attracted strong support in the Fairbanks North Star Borough, which struggles with high energy prices and high demand due to heating needs in the frigid northern winter. Unlike most of this year’s high-profile legislation, S.B. 23 passed unanimously in both the House and Senate.

While several recent legislative sessions were characterized by tension between the Senate, House and governor's office, a resounding victory for Republicans at the polls last November paved the way for Republicans to take outright control of the Senate. The chamber was previously split 10-10 between Republicans and Democrats and controlled by a bipartisan coalition, which was led by Republicans but included all 10 Senate Democrats.

Four Democrats caucused with the House majority during this session, and another Democrat, Anchorage Rep. Lindsey Holmes, left the party and became a Republican shortly before the session started.

Two Democrats, including Juneau Sen. Dennis Egan, caucused with the new Senate majority. Both Egan and Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, had been members of the old Alaska Senate Bipartisan Working Group, which dissolved shortly after the general election last November.

Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 586-1821 or at mark.d.miller@juneauempire.com.


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