This year's legislative session a mad house from start

Lawmakers say challenge is on to finish within 90 days

Posted: Thursday, January 26, 2006

Legislators and their staffs don't usually work 14-hour days until the session's frantic end, and the bills don't usually flow quickly through committees.

But this time Alaska lawmakers hit the ground running, starting the session three weeks ago by taking testimony on two controversial bridge projects, hearing from experts on natural gas pipeline negotiations and oil tax reform plans, and picking apart a $6 billion shortfall owed in the state's pension system.

That's in addition to passing several bills.

"It's not quite an end-of-the-session pace, but probably at 80 percent," said Senate Finance Committee Co-Chairman Gary Wilken, R-Fairbanks.

Some longtime legislators say this is one of the busiest starts they can remember. Wilken said lawmakers are talking about getting some of the smaller stuff out of the way in case the governor and oil producers agree on a gas pipeline contract this session. Then lawmakers would have to focus on approving the proposed contract.

House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez, said besides the possible contract, oil tax reform and the bridges, many other issues are under consideration, such as education funding, fisheries and needs for airports and harbors.

"You compile all that together and you've actually got some work going on," he said.

On Wednesday, committees heard bills covering drunken drivers, property rights and eminent domain, and gun use. The Senate passed a bill that criminalizes all marijuana possession and limits the sale of Sudafed in drugstores to curb home manufacturing of methamphetamines.

"I was going down the street and I saw a (Capitol) reporter and I said, 'How are you doing?' and he said, 'I'll be all right if the pace slows down,'" said Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau. "I have outside confirmation. It's not just me."

Some of her staff members are leaving work at 9:30 p.m. Kerttula's workload increased this year as she was added to the House Finance Committee, which tackles the budget and many bills.

"I think it's good we're working hard. I expect to work hard," Kerttula said. But she added that she hopes the pace slows down during the middle of the session so people do not become stressed out.

Last year, committees spent a lot of time ironing out a new retirement system for state employees and debating a bill that set aside land for the University of Alaska, said House Finance Co-Chairman Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage. In the process, several bills were held over.

"So I think, for Finance anyway, we're doing cleanup from last year as well as taking up things that are new," Meyer said.

Meyer's bills are going through the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Rep. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, who is expecting a baby in March.

"She's trying to get as many done as she can before she goes," he said. "That's great."

A bill and a citizen initiative ready for action this year are proposing that the legislative session be shortened to 90 days from 121. The governor also has challenged legislators to finish within 90 days this year, Meyer said.

"Maybe some people are trying to see how much we can get done in 90 days," he said.

Harris said there are no set plans to end the session early, but there is a chance the budget and legislation could be finished sooner than expected. That would still leave lawmakers with the oil tax changes and debate over a pipeline contract if it arrives, he said.

• Andrew Petty can be reached at andrew.petty@juneauempire.com.



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