Old issues resurface for new session

High school funding, state contracts among major local issues

Posted: Sunday, January 07, 2001

In her first action on the House floor, Rep.-elect Gretchen Guess offered a proposal to apply capital punishment to men only.

But it was only an exercise, as new legislators on Friday ran through the protocol of conducting a floor session under the tutelage of House Speaker Brian Porter and Majority Leader Jeannette James.

Real legislating begins Monday, when lawmakers will be sworn in to start the 22nd two-year session since statehood.

The Capitol came fully alive by the weekend, with a three-day orientation for freshman legislators lasting through Saturday, while veterans were adjusting to new committee assignments and offices, and beginning to contemplate legislation.

The mock floor session in the House, scripted in advance, was a light-hearted affair. Guess, an Anchorage Democrat, jokingly proposed the single-sex application of the death penalty as an advisory question on the statewide ballot. It was voted down 8-5. Rep.-elect Lesil McGuire, an Anchorage Republican, argued it would be a violation of the equal protection clauses of the state and federal constitutions.

James, a North Pole Republican, jokingly asked the body to excuse Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, an Anchorage Democrat, for the entire 2001 session.

"See how easy that was?" Porter said to the freshmen as the exercise concluded.

Whether the light tone continues remains to be seen.

"I think each session develops its own personality," said Sen. Kim Elton, a Juneau Democrat.

The Republican majority concluded its five-year budget-cutting mission last year, leaving the approach to budgetary issues somewhat open-ended for the first time since the mid-1990s.

"We're at a new base line philosophically," said Juneau Republican Rep. Bill Hudson, who's beginning his seventh non-consecutive term, making him the senior Republican in the House.

Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles will attempt to set themes for the session in his State of the State address Wednesday night.

"If it's anything like his budget, it'll be more than what we want," Porter said, when asked what he expects. The governor's proposed $145 million increase in general fund spending has met with criticism from Republicans, although so far there have been no specific areas targeted for trimming.

There is new leadership in the Senate, as well as talk of a divided majority there. A crop of 11 new House members, on top of a similar freshman class two years ago, makes exactly half of that 40-member body of recent vintage.

Juneau Democratic Rep. Beth Kerttula, a sophomore legislator, said she hopes lawmakers will keep their eyes on the big picture and not "sink into the mire of ideological arguments."

"I can't tell whether the people who just got elected are more moderate or not," said Kerttula, who attended a reception for the freshman Friday night. "I hold out hope for this."

There is one new legislator in Southeast, Republican Peggy Wilson of Wrangell, who won the House seat vacated by former Democratic Speaker Ben Grussendorf. Although a freshman and a relatively recent Alaska resident, Wilson is a veteran of sorts, having served two and a half terms in the North Carolina House. She spent some of her time this week "unlearning" rules from that body, such as who can ask for reconsideration of a vote.

Hudson said he views the freshman class as "really established people," noting the presence of former mayors.

Meanwhile, the Juneau delegation is better situated this year, with Elton and Hudson on the finance committees, where the heavy lifting of the state budget is done.

High school tops Juneau issues

Kerttula, Hudson and Elton are hopeful, though not necessarily confident, the Legislature will come up with funding for a new high school in Juneau, which was approved by city voters in 1999. The Legislature failed to come up with the required match last session, enraging, among others, Knowles.

Recently, the state Department of Education determined $43.67 million of the proposed $49.9 million high school is eligible for the state's 70 percent reimbursement. The school's ranking on a list of state school projects inched up from No. 43 to No. 42, still behind $330 million in state funds for other projects.

There are some reasons for cautious optimism this time, says the local delegation.

"I'm comfortable there is going to be a lengthy discussion on education issues, including major maintenance and including the high school," Elton said. Lawmakers have to contend with a judge's ruling that the current school construction methodology discriminates against rural districts, which ensures that the general topic will get discussed, he said.

One question is whether the Legislature would spend funds directly on school construction or issue general obligation bonds, which must be approved by voters. "When I talk about G.O. debt, it doesn't scare me as much as it scares other people," Elton said.

Hudson said his perch on the House Finance Committee means he'll be "dealing with the money from the ground up," increasing chances for the new high school.

"We have a definite need," said Kerttula, who attended the existing Juneau-Douglas High School. "We have kids crammed into those classrooms."

The delegation also is concerned about ensuring the Legislature funds the second year of three-year union contracts that started last year, maintaining scrutiny of the cruise ship industry and fighting efforts to move the capital or legislative sessions out of Juneau.

Pay raises for state employees are a big issue in Juneau, where about one quarter of the workforce is in state government. So far, no legislator has publicly advocated against meeting the terms of the contracts. But Knowles and other administration officials have repeatedly pointed out the need to fulfill that funding commitment, suggesting that they're worried about it.

Hudson, a former Department of Administration commissioner, said there has never been a time in the past 25 years when the Legislature, in the end, refused to fund an ongoing contract. "They often argue about it. There's always that worry because one Legislature cannot bind the next."

Meanwhile, Kerttula has reintroduced her "right to know" bill to require the cruise ship industry to disclose information about its emissions and discharges. She said it might be tweaked to conform with recently passed federal legislation offered by U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski, an Alaska Republican. But it's still "a rock bottom necessity," she said. "It's very hard to argue against."

In supporting the Murkowski bill, which set new wastewater discharge standards, cruise lines have agreed "to tighten up the screws on themselves," Hudson observed. That offers hope for their cooperation with state legislation, he said.

Elton called it "an economic development issue." "It's good for business to know what the rules are," he said.

It's unclear whether there will be a revival of the $50 passenger head tax proposed last session by Anchorage Republican Drue Pearce, then the Senate president. New President Rick Halford of Chugiak also supported it. Knowles has won agreement from cruise CEOs to pay for the state's monitoring and inspection effort, but he has characterized the forthcoming financing mechanism as a user fee rather than a tax.

Finally, and perennially, there is the capital move issue.

Bills again have been introduced to move legislative sessions to Anchorage, which local leaders say would inevitably result in a complete capital move.

"We need to be good hosts" during the legislative session, said Hudson, who met Thursday with a group of local business people concerned about yet another round of capital move debates. "We believe you always have to take these things seriously."

Kerttula, though, sees more posturing in the new legislation than real intent.

"I'm not panicky in the least about these bills," she said.

Bill McAllister can be reached at billm@juneauempire.com.

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