Lawmakers convene '07 session

Gas pipeline, ethics reform at forefront of legislative plans

Posted: Wednesday, January 17, 2007

JUNEAU - An unlikely state Senate coalition of six Republicans and nine Democrats held firm Tuesday during two challenges to its majority rule on opening day of the 2007 legislative session.

The coalition, which leaves five Republicans in the body's minority, was tested within minutes after new senators took their oaths of office as the Senate began to organize for the coming year.

Minority leader Sen. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, first objected to the nomination of Sen. Lyda Green as Senate president.

But the coalition - which long ago made the decision to back Green, and whose members say they prefer the term "majority working group" - held, electing the 68-year-old Wasilla Republican on a 15-5 vote.

Green said she wasn't surprised that her election went to a vote instead of a unanimous voice vote. "That's occurred many times," she said.

A natural gas pipeline is expected to take up much of the Legislature's time this year, but first both the House and Senate members will turn their attention to ethics reform.

Lawmakers in both houses have vowed to restore the public's faith in government, filing ethics-related bills well before the session started.

The state was already beset by a scandal after bribery charges were filed against state

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Rep. Tom Anderson, R-Anchorage, who didn't seek re-election and left office Tuesday. Also casting a shadow was last summer's FBI raid of several lawmakers' offices.

Among those who had their offices searched last summer was Sen. John Cowdery, R-Anchorage. Federal authorities have been quiet about the searches, but at the time, Cowdery said he didn't know why he was included in the raid or why agents seized items "unrelated to anything," including the stubs of his legislative salary checks.

His nomination Tuesday to be chairman of the Rules Committee was the second unsuccessful challenge by Therriault, who asked that Cowdery's nomination be separated from the collective list of chairmen presented for approval.

Coalition members, led by Sens. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, and Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, noted there had been no indictments from the raids, and no one except federal officials knew the entire scope of their investigation.

Stevens later said it was unfair and dangerous to banter around accusations when no one has been charged. If a lawmaker is indicted, then that would be the time to take action.

"The senator in question is a seated member of this body and should have the privileges and rights of each and every one of us," Hoffman said during floor debate.

The coalition confirmed Cowdery to the chairmanship on a 15-5 vote.

There was no such rancor in the House, where members unanimously re-elected John Harris, 49, R-Valdez, as House Speaker.

Lawmakers also have set aside Thursday and Friday to hear national experts discuss ethics reform. Both workshops were in the works long before the ethics scandals hit the state, said Joyce Anderson, administrator for the state's legislative ethics committee.

Lawmakers also will be especially focused this session on a seemingly elusive natural-gas pipeline contract with oil and gas producers.

Former Gov. Frank Murkowski had a deal last year with Exxon Mobil Corp., ConocoPhillips and BP, but the proposed contract failed to receive the Legislature's approval.

Palin reopened the negotiation process shortly after taking office last month with any group interested in the project, not just the big three oil companies.

On Wednesday night, Palin will deliver her first State of the State address.

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