Minority leader wants Senate joint caucus, too

Capitol still adjusting to new House initiative

Posted: Tuesday, January 29, 2002

The Republican and Democratic leaders in the state Senate are reacting very differently to Monday's announcement of a bipartisan House approach to a long-range fiscal plan.

Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis, an Anchorage Democrat, called it "a political earthquake," while Senate President Rick Halford, a Chugiak Republican, said in a separate news conference that not much will change in the way his 14-member majority interacts with the six Democrats.

On Monday, top leaders in the 28-member House majority caucus and 12-member Democratic minority announced that they would meet privately Wednesday to discuss options for averting a $1 billion-plus hole in the state general fund in two years.

"I think it's a real promising development," said Gerald McBeath, political science professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. "I think there's a little more pressure on the Senate to act, because what the Senate's been saying is 'the sky isn't falling yet.' "

Ellis said he will call on Halford to open up the legislative process in the Senate. While Halford has been open and forthright in discussing the Senate's position on incremental revenue-raising measures, Ellis said he fears a "good cop, bad cop" situation in which the Senate Finance Committee meanwhile refuses to move on any of them.

Halford didn't indicate that the House decision meant anything new in Senate procedure.

"One of the things we try to avoid is discussing the internal matters of the other body," he said. "How they deal with efforts to reach consensus on difficult issues is really their question. The Senate is a smaller body. We probably deal with our minority in kind of a continuous conversation mode. ...

"It's much harder to count to 21 than it is to count to 11," he said, referring to the votes necessary to pass bills out of the House and Senate, respectively.

Ellis made light of the idea of "continuous conversation."

"Well, we say 'good morning' and 'how are you doing' and 'how's the family,' " he said. "Yeah, we talk all the time."

Much of the conversation concerning the new House approach has focused on the joint caucus being closed to the public and the news media.

Ellis said he understands the "total frustration" of Democrats in the House, who he said agreed to the closed doors in order to get movement. "I would hope that the doors would open pretty quickly."

But according to Halford, nothing said behind closed doors stays there, anyway. "I've never found any caucus, closed or open, to be in any way secret."

McBeath, the professor, said developments in the House are especially striking because the Legislature has become much more partisan than it used to be.

"I don't know what the long-term impact will be," he said. "I don't think it's a major jolt to the public consciousness yet."

But if a majority of the whole House comes out with a strategy for fixing the budget gap, that could move opinion poll numbers that up to now have shown a majority of Alaskans against broad-based taxes, McBeath said.

Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles, who has called for reinstatement of the income tax, an increase in the alcohol excise tax and implementation of a cruise ship head tax, is backing the new approach in the House.

"It's a positive sign that the Democratic and Republican leadership have gotten together to tackle this issue," said Bob King, the governor's press secretary. "We're interested in finding out where they're going to go."

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

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