Legislature returns for short session

Lawmakers face full agenda as 90-day meeting begins

Posted: Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Lawmakers slowly trickled into the Capitol on Monday, bracing for their first 90-day legislative session, a time frame cut by nearly one-third and mandated by voters.

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They will start this afternoon with opening floor sessions and an evening State of the State address by Gov. Sarah Palin.

Lawmakers arrived fresh off an intense 30-day special session to raise taxes on the oil industry that, depending on oil prices, could bring another $1.5 billion to the state's coffers annually.

That session also capped off a year when the Legislature couldn't avoid the specter of the federal corruption probe that has produced three guilty verdicts among former lawmakers.

It may still be unavoidable this year with former Senate President Ben Stevens and current Senate Rules Chairman John Cowdery, both Anchorage Republicans, under investigation.

"I'm hoping there are no more indictments on our side," said House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez, referring to the conviction of three former House members found guilty of bribery.

Harris added he hoped for no more indictments period, so lawmakers can work undeterred on pressing issues.

"Anytime there are indictments, it starts to change the focus on the corruption," he said.

In a recent interview, Palin said she believes the Legislature has already embarked on restoring public trust.

"I do know that chapter in Alaska's history can be closed and we can move forward," Palin said. "The Legislature wants to move forward doing things differently and do things more openly. Activities in the past will not be tolerated today and in the future.

"Yes, there will still be manifestations of what the problems were with the results of the FBI probes, with the trials and as we hear so often, when there are more indictments. But the acceptance of undue influence, that chapter is closed."

More steps, however, may be taken to ensure closure. Several lawmakers recently filed ethics bills addressing conflicts of interest, campaign finances and penalties for lobbyists who fail to properly register or file a report.

For now, the Legislature can focus on its job. Already the pace seems to be picking up. Several committees will be holding weekend hearings, something typically saved for the final weeks.

Lawmakers must tackle an agenda replete with a budget to approve, an education funding system to draft and ongoing discussions on the state's gas line proposal.

Most believe discussions on awarding a gas line contract will need to be dealt with in a special session.

While they seem to agree on the priorities, how to carry out each one will be subject to debate among lawmakers, said Senate President Lyda Green, R-Wasilla.

"I think what is going to be difficult this year is the appropriate and deep enough hearings for all the legislation that people would like to have," she said.

"At some point we are going to do triage to see what's important, which is next and try to get those critical pieces through the system with adequate hearings," she said.

Still, a state that is barely 50 years old requires more attention than 90 days could allow, some lawmakers said.

The shorter session not only means less legislation, but less important legislation, said Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau.

"What are we doing to do about No Child Left Behind?" he said. "What are we doing to do about problems with transportation, whether it's rural airstrips or state ferries?

"What about the challenges of our corrections systems, which no longer correct but just hold?" he said. "These are issues that deserve time and attention that probably won't be received in a 90-day session."

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