Disaster aid bill in jeopardy

Posted: Thursday, February 24, 2000

A bill aimed at re-defining the term disaster crashed on the floor of the state House on Wednesday.

Senate Bill 101 is still alive, but its legislative ride continued to be a bumpy one. The House came a vote shy of passing the most recent version of the measure, which was approved last year, only to be pulled back for more work.

After the vote, a frustrated Anchorage Republican Rep. Eldon Mulder charged Democrats of deal-breaking and prompted him to threaten budgetary revenge.

The bill isn't dead yet, but if the governor vetoes the measure, the House Finance Committee Co-Chairman said, a deal's been broken. Then, Mulder said, he'll go after the $9 million of disaster relief money he said was linked to SB 101 becoming law.

The measure re-defines what constitutes a disaster and sets limits on how much the governor can spend on some disasters without legislative approval.

``We failed to pass it today, and that I find frustrating,'' Mulder said Wednesday. ``I view this as the minority dealing in bad faith and potentially the administration as well. This is an end game continuing from last year.''

At the end of every legislative session, political leverage is at a premium, and it's common for lawmakers to broker deals to get what they want.

Mulder said the minority had agreed to such a deal, but now that the $9 million has been spent, Democrats aren't cooperating.

If the bill passes and the governor signs it, he said, his problem will go away. If Knowles vetoes it, he said he'll find a way to get the $9 million back, which would entail finding a budget item or two to cut.

Rep. Ethan Berkowitz, an Anchorage Democrat and House minority leader, said last year's linkage of the bill's passage with disaster relief for western Alaska prompted the minority to help give the bill unanimous support.

Without the money being used for leverage by the GOP majority, he said, there was no reason to vote for it.

Berkowitz said he's not sure what agreement Mulder thinks there was.

``There was no deal,'' he said. ``We didn't break any deals. That's a serious accusation to make.''

Following its approval by both the House and Senate last session, the measure was not sent to the governor. It waited over the interim until lawmakers met in January to rescind their action and continue work on the bill.

A legal opinion from legislative lawyer Tamara Cook said the way lawmakers handled the bill could be a violation of procedural rules. However, she said, the Legislature may also have acted well within its discretionary powers.

Bob King, press secretary for Gov. Tony Knowles, said the Democrat intended to sign the measure last year, despite not thinking it was needed. The governor isn't threatening to veto the current version of the bill either, he said, but will wait to see the final version before deciding.

As far as there being a deal, King said, he doesn't recall one.

The bill fail to pass Wednesday on a 20-17 vote with Democrats and five Republicans opposing the measure.



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