Election year likely to affect legislation

'Stalemate' already has been used to describe expected debate on controversial issues

Posted: Monday, January 18, 2010

With billions of dollars in reserve, Alaska lawmakers returning to work this week will have more of a financial cushion than many of their colleagues in cash-strapped states.

But their spending decisions - and ultimately, how greatly they shake up the status quo - likely will be shaded by hopes most of them have either of winning re-election or another office in fall elections. "Stalemate" has already been used to describe how the expected debate on such controversial issues as revamping Alaska's oil and gas production tax could turn out.

"The election will play a huge role in everything that happens during the 90-day session," said Randy Ruedrich, Alaska's GOP chairman.

Ironically, one analyst believes, that could work to the advantage of Gov. Sean Parnell, who faces a potentially tough election bid of his own.

Parnell is pushing an agenda he considers fiscally responsible - one heavy on issues affecting home and pocketbook, from cracking down on domestic violence and bankrolling scholarships for good students to cutting into the backlog of road, ferry and other infrastructure work and suspending the motor fuels tax.

His overall $10.5 billion budget proposal includes an 8.5 percent increase in general fund spending, though he attributes much of the increase to entitlement programs and says his plan would leave a $500-million surplus. Parnell wants the Legislature to set aside $400 million in reserve funds to generate earnings to cover one of his bigger ticket items, the merit scholarship plan.

Jerry McBeath, a political science professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said proposals like the scholarship and infrastructure programs are popular and that it will take discipline for lawmakers to make cuts to Parnell's overall budget. He's skeptical they'll have it.

Instead, given the political climate - 50 of 60 legislative seats are up - and concerns among Alaskans about jobs and oil and gas production and costs, he sees lawmakers focusing less on "detailed budget issues" and more on energy issues such as a major gas pipeline and what it will take to get companies to commit to it. For lawmakers, "the first issue will be, what will I do to enhance my chances for re-election?" McBeath said, and addressing energy concerns ranks high.

As a result, he predicts, "most, if not all" of Parnell's budget will get passed.

Democrats don't see Parnell getting a free pass, though. And lawmakers on both sides figure there will be little more than debate on his plan to give companies more incentives to develop oil and gas in the state. Some aren't convinced companies need more aid; others worry Alaska's oil and gas production tax may be hindering development and want more sweeping changes than Parnell is pushing.

While energy is expected to be a major issue, it won't be the only one lawmakers address. Among the others: proposed changes to state ethics law in the wake of complaints raised by former Gov. Sarah Palin and a strengthening of penalties under the state's hate crimes law.

Sen. Con Bunde, R-Anchorage, expects "a lot of electioneering" and a lot of time spent on proposals that go no farther than a newspaper headline. If he had his way, lawmakers would focus on reining in spending, and entitlements, because the flush reserves the state enjoys now might not always be there.

"I think this will be a very vigorous session," the new Senate Minority Leader said. "Whether a lot is accomplished in an election year, I'm not sure."

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