Juneau's delegation talks of common efforts, divisions

Posted: Friday, January 28, 2011

Juneau’s three-member legislative delegation met with constituents Thursday evening, talking more about issues on which they agree than disagree.

The delegation is split politically, but makes it a point to work together for Juneau, they said.

And while they showed strong agreement on length of legislative sessions, they indicated there might be some divisions on oil taxes.

Legislators unhappy with the 90-day legislative sessions imposed by voters in 2006 are talking openly about various repeal options, including different options in the House and Senate for switching one of the two years of a legislative session to 120 days.

“Either option, I think, is an improvement,” said Rep. Cathy Mużoz, R-Juneau.

There’s not enough time in the day to get done what needs to be done, she said. Legislators are reaching agreement on that, and the some version of a repeal is likely to pass, she said.

“I think it will,” given that about 70 percent of House members opposed the shorter sessions.

Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, said he’s supporting the Senate President’s proposal for first a 90-day session and then a 120-day session, but wouldn’t mind the House changing it to two 120-day sessions.

“We don’t have time to get into the meat of the issues that you are all concerned about,” he said.

The shorter sessions result in more meetings between regular sessions, which Egan said was bad for the capital city.

“They’re usually not in Juneau, they’re in Anchorage,” he said.

The crowd of about 60 stood for about an hour at the Rie Mużoz Gallery, listening in rapt attention as Mużoz, Egan and Democratic Rep. Beth Kerttula briefed them on the inner workings of the Legislature.

All three are strong backers of education funding, but even though Juneau School District is among those facing cuts, none sounded optimistic about the state making up the lost federal stimulus money for the districts.

“We need to impress upon them the need to make the dollars go further,” he said.

The possible differences came in oil tax policy, where Kerttula has opposed Gov. Sean Parnell’s proposal for billions in tax cuts as a way to spur new development.

“I’m opposed to the governor’s legislation as it stands,” she said.

Mużoz, though, warned that the state was facing an impending collapse in oil production, with the trans-Alaska pipeline carrying only about 620,000 barrels a day, about 1/3 of what it once carried.

“At 400,000 barrels the operating costs don’t pencil out to operate the pipeline at that level,” she said.

And Mużoz and Kerttula disagreed on Parnell’s strategy of confronting the state government over resource development issues.

“I support the governor,” Mużoz said. Parnell is facing a federal government that is trying to shut down development in Alaska, she said.

“I have a little bit of a difference of opinion,” Kerttula said.

A former lawyer in the Alaska Attorney General’s office who worked on oil and gas issues, she said Parnell may be to quick to sue, and not successful enough when he does so.

Parnell accused the federal government of having a moratorium on offshore oil drilling when it blocked some Shell Oil exploration efforts in the Arctic, but Kerttula said Shell’s own lawyers acknowledged there was no moratorium.

“I think often you can get further without a lawsuit,” she said.

There were also questions from the audience about public pensions, and the state’s unfunded liability. That’s the difference between what the state expects to owe in future years and what it has set aside to pay that.

All three legislators spent more time discussing how the unfunded liability developed than what they’d do about it, but sounded as if they’d be willing to commit state savings now to solve the problem.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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