The state House has agreed to give a nonprofit lobbying group $1.1 million this year to try to convince Congress to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.
That's about a third of the $3 million Arctic Power requested and less than the $2.8 million the House Finance Committee approved.
The House also agreed to give $100,000 each to the Native village of Kaktovik and to Gov. Frank Murkowski's office for their work in support of opening the refuge.
Representatives voted to lower the Arctic Power request after two closed meetings Wednesday of the House Republican caucus and a closed meeting of several House and Senate leaders.
House Finance Committee Chairman John Harris, a Valdez Republican, said he agreed to the reduced amount to ease the bill's quick passage and keep harmony between the House and Senate and between Democrats and Republicans.
"Everything in the Legislature is the art of the practical and the possible," Harris said. "I wanted to make something that would happen right now."
Senate President Gene Therriault, a North Pole Republican, said Senate Republicans prefer not to provide the entire $3 million this fiscal year, which ends June 30.
He said they intend to continue talking with the congressional delegation and Arctic Power and may be willing to provide more money in next year's budget, which will be approved later this spring. The bill has not yet gone through the Senate.
Harris said he still believes Arctic Power needs more money and he would support supplying that later in the session.
The coastal plain of the Arctic refuge is believed to be the nation's best onshore oil prospect, but drilling can't take place without Congress' approval. Opposition comes from those who say drilling would disturb wildlife and the plain's ecosystem.
Some House Democrats argued for more money, while others argued for less.
Rep. Eric Croft, an Anchorage Democrat, said while Alaska's budget is tight, spending money to open the refuge is an investment that could pay huge dividends in oil revenues to the state in the future.
He argued this is a key year to push the issue since President Bush supports it, as do majorities in the U.S. House and Senate.
"We do have a legitimate shot now," Croft said. "This is not the time to be penny-wise and pound-foolish."
Rep. Les Gara, an Anchorage Democrat, didn't support the spending at all. He called it corporate welfare and said he believes it will have little effect in changing the minds of members of Congress.
Gara also said there are questions about how the group has spent past legislative appropriations. He pointed to a recent story in the AARP Bulletin reporting that Arctic Power had given $181,000 to a group called United Seniors Association, which the Bulletin described as a front group for the pharmaceutical industry.
Arctic Power Executive Director Kim Duke confirmed the group contracted with United Seniors for three months in 2001 to do "grassroots work" to build support for opening ANWR among senior citizens.
She said Arctic Power has not worked with the group since, and she knows nothing about United Seniors' relationship with the pharmaceutical industry.
Some legislators have complained in the past that they did not receive enough information on how Arctic Power spent its money.
The bill approved Wednesday requires the group to submit monthly reports on its activities and expenditures to the congressional delegation, the governor and the Legislature. The bill also requires Arctic Power to coordinate its efforts with the congressional delegation and the governor.
House Bill 101 passed 36-2, with Anchorage Reps. Gara and Sharon Cissna voting against it.
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