As Gov. Tony Knowles prepared to lay out his legislative priorities in his annual address to lawmakers, Republican leaders tried to hammer out details on their own plan.
Leaders from the House and Senate majorities met Tuesday for the first time this session and left with an idea of the main issues they will focus on, but few specifics. Majority leaders from both chambers said it might take at least a couple weeks before Republicans are ready to present a plan.
"One of the things we've always focused on was our five-year spending plan," said House Majority Leader Jeannette James, referring to a Republican budget-cutting effort that ended last May. "That's over. Now we have to think where are we going to go from here."
Leaders from both sides said they expect to focus on at least four issues: Education, development of a natural gas pipeline from the North Slope, a plan to pay for government as oil money dries up, and alcohol-related issues.
"We do need to do something about drunk drivers and keeping them off the streets and we do need to figure out some long-term plan to fund the government," said James, a North Pole Republican. "We do need to improve our education system, that's a given."
Senate Majority Leader Loren Leman said he expects the Senate also will introduce a crime package.
"As we reach some consensus on some ... specifics, we will roll them out," said Leman, an Anchorage Republican. "Some of it will be in the next few weeks. Some of it may be a month or more from now."
House and Senate majority leaders plan to meet again Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the House has set up a new committee to sift through some major issues facing Alaska schools, including education funding and the question of whether a high school graduation exam should take effect in 2002 as planned, or be pushed back several years. Unless lawmakers change the effective date, high school seniors will be required to pass the test by next year to receive a diploma.
Leman said the Senate may set up its own education committee or form a joint panel with the House. He said the Senate likely will wait to announce a detailed position on education until the issues are heard in committee.
"We're looking at the various challenges that education is facing with an open mind to solving them, not with preconceived notions on how we might get there," Leman said. "We're not necessarily saying you must stay with the existing deadline on exams or saying you must extend it. ... We're just going in wanting to hear the facts and based on that, we'll make what we believe are the best decisions."
The two co-chairmen of the House and Senate Finance committees are scheduled to respond immediately after Knowles' 7 p.m. State of the State speech tonight. The speech and the Republican response will be broadcast live on KTOO-TV, Gavel-to Gavel and KTOO-FM. Anchorage Republicans Rep. Eldon Mulder and Sen. Dave Donley are expected to address the funding requests in the governor's speech, but not details on GOP priorities.
Kathy Dye can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.