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Legislators scramble to file bills they fear will go nowhere

Today's personal filing deadline has set off flurry of introductions

Posted: Monday, February 22, 2010

With this legislative session a third of the way through and energy dominating the debate so far, there's a creeping sense of frustration among lawmakers that some of their bills are getting short shrift.

Today's personal filing deadline has set off a flurry of bill introductions, on topics ranging from ethics to governing to, yes, oil taxes, and represent the last chance for legislators, as individuals, to try to at least draw attention to favored causes or constituent concerns. (Committees can still file bills after the deadline.)

What doesn't pass by the time the Legislature adjourns in April dies. And while leaders balk at declaring any bills dead at this point - including a proposal to reinstate the death penalty - statistics suggest a grim fate for much of what's out there: only about 10 percent of the measures filed during the 26th Legislature, which began its two-session run last year, have passed so far.

"I don't think it's as important that we pass legislation as it is we put together a budget that's sustainable," said House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski.

That hasn't stopped complaints of a do-nothing Legislature. Senate Minority Leader Con Bunde, R-Anchorage, said he's had committee meetings canceled and noted a bill on low-speed vehicles is one of the few to have passed the Senate during the first 30 days of this session.

"I can't run the train," he said, "just catch hell when it's late."

Perhaps in that regard, it's a repeat of last year, when fights over federal stimulus funds and conflicts with then-Gov. Sarah Palin, fresh from her failed vice presidential bid, overshadowed all. This year, there's a more cordial tone between lawmakers and Palin's successor, Gov. Sean Parnell. But there are elections approaching that will decide most legislative seats and the governor's office, and uncertainties surrounding a major natural gas pipeline project that some see as critical to the future economy of the state.

Companies behind one proposal hope to begin courting gas producers and working on shipping deals by May, shortly after lawmakers are set to adjourn, and concerns have been raised that deals will be heavily conditioned on tax and royalty terms that could lead to another special session. There seems little interest in that.

Bills have also stacked up in Senate Finance, which has undertaken intense, highly detailed hearings aimed at determining whether Alaska's two-year-old oil and gas production tax system needs to be reworked to help spur new oil development and a pipeline. It's a fact-finding mission, amid numerous bills proposing everything from tweaks to overhauls of the system. And there's no clear indication yet of where it will lead.

House Democrats are among those unconvinced the system is broken.

"There should be some fair amount of time put into an analysis on how the system is working," Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, said. "But I'm concerned the session will be defined by how much we give to oil companies and not (by) what we do."

The budget also looms large, with leaders on both sides saying they want to limit the growth of government and save more for a rainy day. But they also want a healthy cut of the capital budget for projects at home.

It's hard to argue the need to spend significant time on both; oil drives Alaska's economy, and price and production changes play a large part in determining what legislators are free to work with to keep government running.

And it's not that other things aren't getting done. Committee work continues on proposals ranging from energy policy and school construction to student scholarships and addressing domestic violence.

But legislators also face some serious questions down the road, such as how to get a handle on Medicaid costs that Parnell has blamed as a big part of the increase he proposed in the next budget.

"I think there is a Darwinian-like natural selection process: the most important bills and the least important bills are moving forward, and it's the vast middle that's going to pay the price," said Republican Rep. Jay Ramras, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. That's a pattern that's played out before, he said: "It's much more personality driven than policy driven."

House Minority Leader Beth Kerttula said the 90-day session that voters mandated in 2006 isn't working. She and others have talked about not getting to spend enough time with constituents - and not being able to delve into weighty policy issues the way they'd like.

"It's like we're all in a sprint from go but stuck in glue," she said.



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