As the 22nd Alaska Legislature convened this morning, Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles announced creation of a "natural gas policy cabinet" to expedite the permitting and routing of a pipeline to Lower 48 markets.
Knowles, largely avoiding issues on which he and the Republican majority in the Legislature might disagree, also announced the introduction of legislation that would give him the authority to negotiate a tax package with gas line developers.
Soon after, in a solely ceremonial event, the House convened for 30 minutes for the swearing in of 39 members by Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer and the election of Anchorage Republican Brian Porter for a second term as speaker. Rep. Jim Whitaker, a Fairbanks Republican, missed the floor session because of a delayed flight.
Freshman Rep. Lesil McGuire, an Anchorage Republican whose opponent accused her of lying about her residency, choked back tears after she was sworn in. Palmer Republican Rep. Scott Ogan, on crutches after breaking his kneecap, offered some comic relief, hopping to the podium to shake Ulmer's hand as other lawmakers laughed.
The House then broke for a meeting of the Committee on Committees, returning later for additional opening-day business.
The Senate convened an hour after the House, with half of the 20 members being sworn in for another term. The other half were not on the ballot last year.
At his press conference, Knowles called construction of a gas pipeline the "flagship issue" of economic development in Alaska.
"It's time to jump-start this important project," the governor said. "We need to show that we are ready to get to work. Let me commend the Legislature for putting this issue at the top of their priority list. I know several gas line bills have been prefiled, and I believe that we truly are in step together to make this project happen."
Porter and Rep. Eldon Mulder, also an Anchorage Republican, have introduced a bill supporting a "southern" route along the Alaska Highway. Mulder said the majority will further refine its approach on the issue after a priority-setting meeting of the entire caucus. The House Republican caucus was scheduled to meet this afternoon.
Emphasizing the route he wants the pipeline to take, Knowles is calling the project the Alaska Highway Gas Line Initiative, with the motto, "My way is the highway."
He signed an administrative order establishing a "one-stop shopping" process for dealing with natural gas issues, creating an office for a separate state gas line coordinator with the Department of Natural Resources.
Knowles has asked lawmakers for $4 million for action on permits and right-of-way. He also wants to amend the 1998 "stranded gas" act to include all natural gas technologies, giving him the flexibility to work out a deal with developers that will ensure financial viability of the pipeline project.
There are about 35 trillion cubic feet of proven reserves on the North Slope, and with an additional 70 trillion cubic feet suspected.
Knowles, who hopes to see construction get under way before he leaves office in two years, says a pipeline must provide jobs and natural gas for Alaskans, and benefit Alaskan businesses. Therefore, he opposes the so-called "northern route" for the pipeline, which would go off-shore from the North Slope and pick up additional reserves in the Mackenzie Delta in the Northwest Territories.
As for the legislative session, Knowles kept his comments upbeat and general. He is giving his State of the State address at 7 p.m. Wednesday and is expected to say something about the need for a long-term fiscal plan to plug projected budget deficits.
House and Senate Republicans aren't expected to release their priorities until leaders from both sides meet. A joint leadership meeting is tentatively scheduled for Tuesday, but it is unclear whether the two sides will release their priorities after the meeting.
"I think you'll see topics (come up) but whether they'll be fleshed out to priorities is another question," said Senate President Rick Halford, a Chugiak Republican.
Freshman Rep. Kevin Meyer, a Republican who has served on the Anchorage City Council, said he was more moved today than when he was sworn in to serve city government.
"The lieutenant governor had us come up, having the kids sing to us, the honor guard - I think that's more eventful and more meaningful to me," Meyer said.
Porter urged lawmakers to put the frustration of their campaigns behind them. "I'd like to ask us all to close the lid on the election box. ... We all are now one."
"We will try to do the best we can and try to represent the people of Alaska as best we can," Halford said as he took to the podium in the Senate.
In the Senate, the colors were presented by the Veterans of Foreign Wars Taku Post 5559, American Legion Auke Bay Post 2 and the Disabled American Veterans. The Tongass Alaska Girl Scouts presented the Colors and led the Pledge of Allegiance in the House, while The Alaska Youth Choir sang the Alaska Flag Song.
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