Legislative session slower than usual

Lawmakers say they've been focusing on the state budget

Posted: Thursday, March 08, 2001

With this year's legislative session half over, the Legislature has completed work on just three bills - two renaming roads and one re-establishing the state Board of Public Accountancy.

The first half of any legislative session tends to be slow, but lawmakers say this year has been unusually sluggish.

"If it got much slower, it would stop entirely," said Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, an Anchorage Democrat.

House Majority Leader Jeannette James, a North Pole Republican, agrees it has been calm. But the number of public opinion messages, e-mails and calls is also down, which indicates to her citizens aren't clamoring for action.

Still, she said, lawmakers haven't been slacking.

"We've been working intently on the budget. That's mostly where the focus has been," James said.

Committees also are wrestling with what to do about the high school exit exam and the problem of repeat drunken drivers, and what role, if any, the Legislature should play in possible development of a natural gas pipeline.

The House Finance Committee will start taking testimony on the operating budget Thursday. It's expected to be ready for a vote on the House floor next week, which James said would be one of the earliest votes on the budget she can recall.

The committee tentatively proposed an increase of about $27 million in general fund spending, which leaders said would keep programs basically at a status quo. That's about $56 million less than the operating budget proposed by Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Lawmakers will also decide how much to spend on construction projects. Gov. Tony Knowles proposed a $127 million bond package for building and fixing schools and a six-year $425 million plan to improve roads and build ferries.

Budget leaders in the Republican-led Legislature have expressed some interest in the proposals but questioned some of the details. House Finance Committee Co-Chairman Eldon Mulder, an Anchorage Republican, said he's concerned about overheating the economy.

During the second half of the session the pace is expected to pick up on a couple of other big issues.

One is a controversial high school graduation exam, which James said would be resolved by adjournment. Another is repeat drunken drivers. So far a bill that among other things stiffens fines and sentences for repeat offenders has cleared just one House committee.

But its sponsor Rep. Norm Rokeberg, an Anchorage Republican, is optimistic it - and an expected measure that would send some drunken drivers to a therapeutic court program - can make it through this session.

"They're priority bills so they'll get good consideration," Rokeberg said.

Lawmakers have also spent a lot of time talking about the possibility of a natural gas pipeline from the North Slope to the Lower 48.

They've seen presentations from major oil producers who are studying whether such a project is economically viable. They've also heard from backers of alternative proposals to ship North Slope gas in a liquefied form to Asia.

But so far no gasline legislation has passed a single committee.

"To learn is the most important thing right now," Senate Resources Chairman John Torgerson said. "We need to educate ourselves. We need to educate the public."

Torgerson said he isn't planning any major legislation now since the gas producers haven't made a decision on whether to build a pipeline, and if so, when and along what route.

Minority lawmakers say the Legislature needs to tackle other issues this session, too - a long-range fiscal plan and subsistence hunting and fishing.

"We have a lot of issues out there that we haven't talked about and probably won't talk about," said Sen. Kim Elton, a Juneau Democrat.

But some lawmakers say not doing much is just fine.

"Actually, I think that's good," said Rep. Scott Ogan, a Palmer Republican. "The fact that we're not passing many laws means people's wallets are safe for now."

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