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Republicans, Democrats come together to solve state fiscal woes

House tries new approach on long-range plan

Posted: Monday, January 28, 2002

Republicans and Democrats in the House will meet as one caucus this week to discuss a long-range fiscal plan.

The bipartisan action, virtually unprecedented in recent legislative history, is being taken in order to break through political divisions that otherwise might prevent a solution to the state's impending fiscal crisis, leaders of the House caucuses said in a news conference this morning.

"We're going to practice a new kind of politics that's more responsive to Alaska's needs," said House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, an Anchorage Democrat. "It takes a lot of courage for the majority to do what it's doing."

All 40 members of the House - the 28-member majority, which includes one Democrat, and 12 minority Democrats - are invited to the first Caucus of the Whole meeting Wednesday.

The goal, said House Majority Leader Jeannette James of North Pole, is to get a majority of both groups to agree on a "strategy" for legislation that has a chance of passing the Senate, a more conservative, adamantly anti-tax body, and of being signed by Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles.

Wednesday's meeting will be closed to the public and the news media, a source of contention between several reporters and legislators this morning.

House Speaker Brian Porter, an Anchorage Republican, said that there must be "some degree of security" so legislators can speak frankly about how to solve the billion-dollar budget gap without fear that their comments will be broadcast or appear in print the next day.

Part of the process will involve changing the minds of legislators who have campaigned against various revenue-raising alternatives to balance the budget, Porter said.

Implicitly, that would provide political cover for some of the tough choices being made, he said. "If we sit together and come to an agreement on whatever this package might include, it would seem to me that any individual Republican or Democratic during a campaign process that would criticize that would be kind of out on his or her own."

Rep. John Davies, a Fairbanks Democrat who is a co-chairman of the bipartisan Fiscal Policy Caucus, said the caucus of the whole means campaign rhetoric will focus more on the merits of a plan than on the politics of one.

"We expect just by virtue of having a joint plan to essentially insulate each other against undue attacks in the campaign," Davies said.

The joint caucus approach was first broached by Democrats in the fall as a possible reorganization of the House. But instead, it will be used only in dealing with a long-range fiscal plan and not with any other issues that will come before the Legislature.

It remains to be seen whether Wednesday's meeting is a one-time event or the beginning of a process. Rep. Scott Ogan, a staunchly conservative Republican from Palmer, said he won't attend.

The starting point for the discussion will be the work product of the Fiscal Policy Caucus, a group including about half the House and a handful of senators that has been discussing the long-range plan since last March. The bipartisan group has put together a list of revenue-raising measures that would bring in about $1 billion annually.

Juneau Republican Rep. Bill Hudson, founder and co-chairman of the Fiscal Policy Caucus, applauded Porter and Berkowitz for "setting politics aside." He said in an interview that the new approach probably reduces the likelihood that a powerful committee chairman can stymie a bill that has wide support.

But the Senate remains the largest obstacle, Hudson said. "Seven to 10 senators are really kind of drawing a line in the sand that they're not going to do anything with new revenue until the people vote on putting some kind of symbolic cap on spending. Does that make a lot of sense? I don't think so."

Senate leaders weren't immediately available for comment.

Bill McAllister can be reached at billm@juneauempire.com.



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