Agreement reached on disaster relief bill

Funds to cover range of disasters

Posted: Monday, February 21, 2000

The journey of the most heavily traveled bill of the 21st Legislature may soon be over.

Senate Bill 101, which started off as a 14-line measure altering the state's legal definition of a disaster last March, was passed out of its third conference committee on Monday. The previous version of the measure was passed by both the House and the Senate last year, but those votes were rescinded by lawmakers before it became law.

The committee today altered wording that would have forced the Legislature to meet in special session or have all lawmakers sign off on disaster funding above $500,000 during a fiscal year.

Without that change, a disaster that took place during the eight months the legislators aren't in session could be old news before lawmakers could approve relief money.

``Whatever the disaster, it would be ancient by the time that happens,'' said Speaker of the House Brian Porter, an Anchorage Republican.

As it is today, the bill is acceptable to the administration of Gov. Tony Knowles, which initially opposed the measure.

The measure was introduced last year by the Republican-led Senate Finance Committee following Knowles' declaration of a natural disaster - and the spending of $8.1 million - in response to a horrible year for western Alaska fishermen in 1998.

Senate President Drue Pearce, an Anchorage Republican, said the bill came from a feeling by lawmakers that the definition of what constitutes a disaster - and when the Legislature gets involved - was too vague.

The bill doesn't change the process by which a declaration of an economic disaster is approved.

Sen. Kim Elton, a Juneau Democrat, doesn't like the bill. He said it was an effort to snatch power away from the governor. However, he's glad the potentially disastrous special session provision was fixed.

For Elton, the measure tries to draw a false line between a natural event and the financial impact it can have on people.

``I think you can't separate the economics from a disaster,'' he said.

The current incarnation is acceptable to Carol Carroll, director of the Administrative Services Division for the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. Her division administers the state's response to disasters.

``It's an OK bill,'' she said. ``We can certainly do the things they want us to.''

Those things include additional reporting from the department to lawmakers about where disaster relief money is coming from, how much state money gets matched by federal funds and how long a disaster is expected to drain state resources.

One of the early versions of the bill was not OK to Carroll. Then, the measure would have set in statute what can cause a disaster using specific terms, such as ``earthquake.'' Carroll said that was problematic because you never know what emergency is just around the corner. The bill was subsequently loosened up a bit to allow for the unexpected.

``They were defining exactly what a disaster is,'' she said. ``You can never really list everything that might happen.''

A conference committee is a group of both House and Senate lawmakers that meets to work out a compromise when the two bodies pass different versions of the same bill. The measure still must be approved by the full House and Senate.

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