Game on: Lawmakers sworn in for 23rd legislative session

Posted: Tuesday, January 21, 2003

Lawmakers kicked off the 23rd session of the Alaska Legislature this morning with the swearing-in ceremony at the Capitol.

Fresh faces abounded in the House and Senate, with freshmen constituting close to two-thirds of the lawmakers this session.

Because of redistricting - the redrawing of legislative district lines that occurs once every 10 years - this year's freshman class includes 17 new lawmakers.

Fourteen freshmen members will enter the House and three will enter the Senate.

Sen. Kim Elton and Rep. Beth Kerttula, both Democrats, and Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, a Republican, will represent Juneau this session.

"There's a lot of exuberance. Any time you get almost half of the House of Representatives as newcomers there's a lot of desire to do things new and different," said Weyhrauch, a freshman. "It's sort of a tension between wanting to get out of the chute and run like a stallion and then the leadership wanting to draw some course and bring everybody together."

Nome Democratic Rep. Richard Foster, who has served in the House since 1989, said his advice to incoming lawmakers would be: "I'd say to try to exercise a little because they'll all get a potbelly by the time the session's over - and that's probably the only thing they will accomplish this year is a potbelly."

Republicans and Democrats were expected to hold press conferences later today to discuss their goals for the session.

So far neither side has established a strong agenda, and majority and minority leaders appear to be waiting for Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski to establish his top priorities in the State of the State address on Thursday evening.

That address likely will not include a call for new taxes.

During the fall campaign, Murkowski said he would not pursue new taxes. He promised instead to focus on resource development to generate new revenue for the state.

A dime-a-drink alcohol tax was passed last session, but there has been little talk among legislators since the November election about implementing new taxes to address the state's fiscal gap. The bipartisan fiscal policy caucus proposed implementing a variety of revenue measures last session, including an income tax and use of the earnings of the Alaska Permanent Fund.

But leaders in the caucus such as Juneau Republican Rep. Bill Hudson, Anchorage Republican Rep. Lisa Murkowski, and Soldotna Republican Rep. Ken Lancaster are not returning to the Legislature this session. Hudson and Lancaster didn't run for re-election, and Murkowski was appointed to the U.S. Senate by her father.

There has been talk among incoming House members of instituting a Ways and Means Committee to formalize the efforts of the ad hoc fiscal caucus.

House Speaker Pete Kott, an Eagle River Republican, said there is about a 50-50 chance a Ways and Means Committee will materialize this session, but added he does not expect any new taxes.

"...the whole purpose (of a Ways and Means Committee) was to keep the discussion at the level where people still could understand what was happening within the fiscal arena at the state government level," Kott said. "I think absent that, there is going to be some complacency out there again with the price of oil now $30 a barrel and everybody's going to be fat, dumb and happy again."

Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at timothyi@juneauempire.com.



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