A maneuver Wednesday by the House Finance Committee has forced a North Pole lawmaker to loosen his grip on several controversial tax bills he is holding in a separate committee.
Republican Rep. John Coghill said he will have hearings on bills to levy a state income tax and a state sales tax next week and that he won't stop the measures from passing out of the House State Affairs Committee, which he heads.
The reversal came after the Finance Committee voted to include similar tax bills in another measure, effectively going around Coghill.
"Obviously my thunder's been stolen on that regard. My ability to stand as a roadblock now is gone, and so that means I can only be a part of the discussion at a lesser level," he said.
Coghill was not the only lawmaker in the GOP House majority blindsided by the move. Republican Reps. Bill Williams and Eldon Mulder, who serves as co-chairman of the Finance Committee, were surprised their panel voted to roll the tax measures into another bill up for debate Wednesday.
"This is the Forest Gump theory of committee process. You never know what you're going to get when you open that box of chocolate," said Mulder of Anchorage.
The Finance Committee met intending to consider a bill to hike the alcohol excise tax by a dime a drink. Williams, the co-chairman, opposed the measure but scheduled it for a hearing anyway, relenting to pressure from some members of his caucus.
"I thought we were going to go in there and vote it up or vote it down," said Williams, of Saxman.
Instead, Rep. Con Bunde, an Anchorage Republican, offered an amendment to tack on a 3 percent state income tax plus a 3 percent state sales tax and to increase corporate taxes by 1 percent.
Bunde said he posed the amendment to force discussion on a long-range fiscal plan to close an expected annual $1 billion budget gap. He said he would support the alcohol tax hike only as part of a larger package to solve the state's money woes, adding that the tax proposals in his amendment would get the state partway there by raising roughly $600 million a year.
"We can't simply focus on piecemeal (measures) singling out one industry over another. I think we have to have a broader scope," Bunde told the committee.
Juneau Republican Rep. Bill Hudson initially opposed the amendment, saying it wasn't right to circumvent the public process by going around Coghill. He also feared the amendment would doom the alcohol bill. But Hudson changed his mind after huddling with a handful of committee members during a break.
"I believe every element that is in this amended piece of legislation is a potential part of resolving a very major problem in this state," Hudson said.
The amendment was strongly opposed by Williams, the co-chairman, who voiced concerns about alienating Coghill and other lawmakers in his camp.
"There are people in this building that need to be brought along with this," Williams said. "We need everyone to have ownership in this fiscal plan before us."
The panel then approved the amendment 7-4, with Williams, Mulder, Democrat Rep. Richard Foster of Nome and Republican Rep. John Harris of Valdez voting no.
"It's quite obvious we've created a monster here now," said Unalaska Democrat Rep. Carl Moses, who voted in favor of the amendment, then made a motion to put the bill on hold.
The committee voted 10-1 to table the bill, meaning it won't come up again unless a majority of committee members vote to schedule it. That would require six votes when all members are present, but Mulder, the co-chairman, figured that would not be an obstacle since seven members voted in favor of the revised bill.
Coghill said the Finance Committee probably could muster the six votes and that the move left him no choice but to let the bills out of his committee.
"I would stand as much as I could against that pressure, but now I think I don't have that luxury at this point," said Coghill, noting he will hold hearings on the tax proposals Tuesday and Thursday of next week.
The sponsor of the alcohol tax bill had mixed feelings about the developments Wednesday.
"It's good news in that we have very seriously started the discussion about what goes into a revenue-raising package," said Rep. Lisa Murkowski, an Anchorage Republican. "But as the advocate for an increase in the alcohol tax, it's a delay, so I do have misgivings about that."
Kathy Dye can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.