Legislature back in town

Little action may occur on budget, other high-profile issues

Posted: Sunday, January 09, 2000

Privacy, schools amoung early bills

By CATHY BROWNTHE JUNEAU EMPIRE

Two bills to protect privacy will face legislators this year. Lawmakers will also be looking at a proposal to let people teach in rural Alaska before they complete a teacher certification program.

Those are among 34 new bills and resolutions introduced so far this year. In addition, about 400 bills and resolutions are still left to be dealt with from last year's session.

Rep. Beth Kerttula, a Juneau Democrat, is introducing House Bill 273, which would keep Internet service providers from sharing information about their subscribers without the subscribers' permission.

``I think it's necessary for privacy rights,'' Kerttula said. ``It's really intrusive to me to have a company be able to monitor what you're doing on the Internet and then sell it to a broad range of people . . . . I just think people have a right to know that's happening and decide whether they want it to happen or not.''

Rep. Eric Croft, an Anchorage Democrat, will be pushing another privacy protection bill.

House Bill 278 outlines strict rules for how genetic information is to be handled, puts restrictions on employers' use of electronic monitoring to oversee their workers and prevents businesses from sharing information about customers without the customers' consent.

``I think across the political spectrum, conservative to liberal, there's a respect for privacy,'' Croft said in a recent interview from Anchorage. ``I think we can build some interesting coalitions here.''

Rep. Andrew Halcro, an Anchorage Republican, also has several bills he's pushing this year, including one that would address a shortage of certified teachers in rural Alaska.

House Bill 271 would allow people with bachelor's degrees to teach in rural schools for up to three years while they're finishing their teacher certification requirements.

They could only teach in schools where the Department of Education has certified there is a teacher shortage. The department could require some minimum training requirements of such teachers.

Other new bills and resolutions released to the public Friday include:

House Bill 279 by Halcro, which would require state employees to use frequent flyer airline miles for subsequent state travel.

House Bill 269 by North Pole Republican Rep. Gene Therriault, which would initiate an 18-month pilot project in which interviews with children who may have been abused or neglected would be videotaped. A report on how the project worked would be made to the legislature.

Senate Joint Resolution 30 by Wrangell Republican Sen. Robin Taylor would have Alaskans vote on a constitutional amendment allowing the legislature to repeal regulations adopted by a state agency.

House Bill 280 by Homer Republican Rep. Gail Phillips would establish the Alaska International Airport Authority to manage the Anchorage and Fairbanks airports. Senate Bill 189 by Anchorage Republican Sen. Tim Kelly would do the same thing.

When the 2000 legislative session is over, it may be remembered for what wasn't done.

On Monday, the House and Senate chambers at the Capitol will once again be filled with Alaska's 60 legislators. With 50 members up for re-election this year, and with majority leaders seeing little movement on the two top issues from last year - subsistence and a long-range fiscal plan - the state's budget will likely stand as the main legislative focus over the next 122 days.

``The budget, of course, affects so many things that it's almost obvious to say that the budget is going to be the single-most important issue,'' Speaker of the House Brian Porter, an Anchorage Republican, said in a recent interview.

More work on a long-range fiscal plan, to find a way to pay for government without dipping into state savings accounts, he said, is probably off the table for 2000 given the mixed messages lawmakers heard from the electorate. In September, some 84 percent of Alaska's voters rejected the idea of using earnings from the Alaska Permanent Fund to help pay for state services.

The House, he said, has done its best on subsistence. In a special session last year, the body passed a measure that would have put a rural preference for subsistence on the ballot.

Now, he said, it's up to the Senate.

Senate President Drue Pearce, an Anchorage Republican, said it looks unlikely that the Senate will move on the issue.

``I am quite sure that the people who would like to see a constitutional amendment on the ballot next fall will view the next 121 days of session as an opportunity,'' she said. ``Whether or not there's anything that could get real support by 14 people in the Senate I question during the coming election year, frankly.''

Though those two controversial issues may not be addressed, this year's budget battle will likely be the basis for a healthy political battle.

Gov. Tony Knowles' 2001 budget proposal, which he's dubbed the ``children's budget,'' would spend $2.4 billion of state-generated general funds. When permanent fund dividends, inflation-proofing, federal and other funds are added, the governor's budget totals $6.7 billion, which is $198 million more than the spending plan approved for fiscal year 2000. About $100 million of the increase is in the form of general funds.

For Rep. Gene Therriault, a North Pole Republican and co-chairman of the House Finance Committee, Knowles' budget looks to be more about pandering to interest groups than anything else.

The GOP enjoys a clear majority in both the House and the Senate. Party leaders have said they want to cut another $30 million from last year's spending to continue their five-year budget goal announced in 1995.

For Knowles, the Republicans are taking a narrow view.

``Budgets have to be program-driven, not number-driven,'' he said. ``I think cuts should always be done recognizing opportunities that you forgo or obligations that you don't fulfill. I think that we started an obligation to Alaska's children with Smart Start and quality school initiatives. I think that we need to continue on that direction.''

With Knowles' seeking additional money for programs and Republicans looking for places to cut funding, Therriault said the majority would be looking to trim some $150 million from Knowles' proposal, when everything is taken into account.

The capital budget, which contains public-works projects, will likely remain under the $90 million to $100 million state funding cap the GOP has kept for several years, Therriault said.

Also on the table is a $665 million bond package proposed by Anchorage Republican Rep. Eldon Mulder, co-chairman of the House Finance Committee. The proposal would pay for school construction and repairs, improvements to University of Alaska campuses, harbor upgrades and modifications to state facilities to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

If the Legislature approves the five-year plan, the general obligation bonds would go before voters next November.

But for things like state labor contracts, which will likely cost the state more, there'll be resistance from GOP lawmakers.

Programs that were spared the knife last year may not make it in the next, though majority leaders said no specific programs have been targeted for cuts yet. Knowles' proposals for more money for the University of Alaska and for child care and child protection programs will face an uphill battle.

With the election year, however, legislators will likely try to impress their constituents.

Efforts to limit the length of or to move legislative sessions will come up, as will recommendations on what state programs could be privatized. However, it's too early to tell if those proposals will go very far.

It's also too early to tell if the defection of four Republicans from the House majority during the last special session will have much of an impact on legislative business. The four - Reps. John Coghill of North Pole, Vic Kohring of Wasilla, Jerry Sanders of Anchorage and Scot Ogan of Palmer - have indicated they will still likely vote along Republican lines, preserving the GOP's veto-proof weight.

Those four legislators will be in front of voters soon too, just like most everyone else at the Capitol.

Rep. Ben Grussendorf, a Sitka Democrat who's served in the House since 1980, said upcoming elections always have an impact on the legislative session, but what that impact is can vary.

``Everyone will want to look good,'' he said.

That effort to look good may result in more cooperation between minority Democrats and majority Republicans to get things done. On the other hand, some legislators may want to cooperate less to clearly distinguish the differences between Republicans and Democrats, he said.

Sen. Tim Kelly, an Anchorage Republican, agreed that legislators are much more cautious about new initiatives in an election year than in a non-election year.

``The business does get done,'' he said, ``but generally the pushing-the-envelope issues get laid aside during an election year.''



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