The Republican majority in the Legislature voiced uncertainty today about revenue-raising measures that might be taken this year as part of a long-range fiscal plan.
The second session of the 22nd Legislature got under way at 10 a.m., with the convening of the Senate. The House followed at 11:08 a.m.
As part of the opening formalities, Juneau Sen. Kim Elton reported to Senate President Rick Halford that he and Sen. Randy Phillips of Eagle River had notified Gov. Tony Knowles that the Senate was in session.
New Sen. Ben Stevens, an Anchorage Republican, was announced as chairman of that chamber's Labor and Commerce Committee, replacing Phillips, who is now Rules Committee chairman. Stevens, appointed by Knowles last summer, took the seat held by former Rules Chairwoman Drue Pearce, now an advisor to U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton.
House Speaker Brian Porter, noting the unusually contentious election year that is shaping up, asked his 39 colleagues to defer politics and concentrate on the monumental issues facing the Legislature.
"I profoundly agree that this is going to be the biggest challenge we have faced in the 10 years I've been here," he said. "We will set these things aside and do the work we were elected to do."
In separate news conferences, Halford and the three top leaders in the House said debate over a long-range plan is the No. 1 issue on the legislative agenda, with the outcome uncertain.
But the four Republicans said changes this year are likely to be incremental, not sweeping.
"I don't see a silver bullet out there," said Halford, who heads the 14-member Senate majority caucus.
A comprehensive package would bring together separate constituencies that oppose each of the elements, making passage impossible, he said. "Because it does attack everybody equally, it is opposed statewide."
Alaskans have been fortunate "in being able to export our tax burden for one complete political generation," Halford noted. Since oil money started coming into the state treasury in the early 1980s, residents haven't paid an income tax or statewide sales tax, and have received annual permanent fund dividends.
Porter said a majority of his 28-member caucus recognizes that there's a serious problem coming, with billion-dollar deficits projected once the state's main reserve fund is emptied in 2004.
"Yet the Alaska public seems to be in a bit of denial," said House Finance Co-Chairman Eldon Mulder. "It's naive to think you can do a big package. ... This is a very difficult little minefield to navigate through."
Porter, Mulder and House Majority Leader Jeannette James expressed somewhat differing preferences for fixing the fiscal gap, which they said underscored the challenge ahead.
For example, Mulder said he's adamantly opposed to an income tax because that would hit working people in an effort to maintain the permanent fund dividend, which goes to all Alaskans, including the unemployed.
"That is welfare, plain and simple," Mulder said. "It's an entitlement payment."
He said a seasonal sales tax might be useful in getting nonresident workers to contribute to the state treasury.
But James said a sales tax is an administrative burden for businesses. With the income tax, everybody's responsible for their own payment, making it a fairer method to raise revenue, she said.
James and Porter said using earnings from the permanent fund to help balance the budget is appropriate.
"I remember what it was established for," Porter said.
There was agreement among the Republicans that a constitutional limit on state spending will be a key plank of the plan. Such an amendment passed the Senate last year.
Porter said in the House there probably won't be a Committee of the Whole approach to a long-range plan. Democrats had proposed that the majority and the minority work together on the issue.
But Porter said House Republicans will include Democrats in discussions of a long-range plan.
The other major issue of the session appears to be subsistence. Knowles is pushing a constitutional amendment to conform with the rural subsistence priority in federal law.
But Halford held out hope that the priority could be "local," not rural, thus addressing the issue of equality that has concerned sportsmen's groups and other urban users of fish and game resources.
Bill McAllister can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.