Special session on budget puts crunch on House leaders

Posted: Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Governor Frank Murkowski's plan for a March 1 special session - timed to fall midway through the Legislature's regular session - is creating heartburn among lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

The most immediate problem in the House is that it will limit the time lawmakers have to pick over the governor's $2.3 billion operating budget.

"We need to have time to do our job," said Rep. Norm Rokeberg, an Anchorage Republican.

House budget writers hope to wrap up budget talks by the end of February, nearly a month earlier than in previous years, to stop work and enter into the special session called by the governor.

"It's going to be tough," said House Speaker Pete Kott, an Eagle River Republican.

Under the Alaska Constitution, a gubernatorial special session limits lawmakers to only the issues set out in his proclamation. The session is limited to 30 days, and during that time other business stops.

Murkowski called lawmakers into a special session to consider whether to ask voters to amend the state constitution changing the way the Alaska Permanent Fund is used.

At the heart of the issue is whether to use a portion of the $27.9 billion fund to help close the state's chronic budget deficit.

Apart from the politically thorny issue of using permanent fund money for state government, Republican leaders already have complained that the special session creates other problems, both legal and logistical.

A governor could sidetrack lawmakers with numerous special sessions that keep them away from their own agendas. In addition, a gubernatorial special session within the Legislature's 120-day work schedule costs valuable time on the budget and other matters.

Already, a legal opinion from the Legislative Affairs Agency questions whether the administration can legally interrupt the Legislature, but Republican leaders are not pushing the point yet.

"They know we've got some concern," said Senate President Gene Therriault, a North Pole Republican. "They say, 'let's talk about that.' "

Meanwhile, House Democrats worry the Republican governor's budget will not get a thorough examination in the limited time lawmakers are facing this session.

Last session, Murkowski proposed more than $20 million in education cuts that lawmakers ultimately rejected, said Rep. Eric Croft, an Anchorage Democrat.

"It took us a while to firm that up and convince him that it would have been disastrous for education if we had rubber-stamped that," Croft said.

An accelerated budget process means the public has less time to delve into the details of a spending plan, Croft said.

"The thing that drops out is the ability of the public to get the information, digest it and react and let us know so we can react," Croft said.

The House traditionally completes work on the governor's operating budget first, taking it up in the early part of the session before sending it to the Senate.

Last year, the budget cleared the House floor April 8 following weeks of testimony and committee work. In 2002, the House began floor debate on the budget in mid-March.

Kott said it is too early in the budget process to determine whether the special session will impede lawmakers. But House Republicans may reassess that in mid-February, he said.

"If it's disruptive, the administration recognizes we have a constitutional mandate to get the budget out," Kott said. "If we give the administration assurances we will deal with the issue, they might withdraw the call."

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