Halftime at the Capitol

GOP says things are going well, Democrats say key issues ignored

Posted: Sunday, March 12, 2000

Legislators have accomplished a lot - or close to nothing.

Those are the dueling assessments Democrats and Republicans give of what has been done as of last week, the mid-point of the 2000 legislative session.

Republicans, who are in the majority, say the session's going well.

The House Finance Committee has already finished its version of next year's operating budget, about a month earlier than usual, said committee co-chairman Eldon Mulder.

``We've been going at a hectic pace in House Finance,'' said Mulder, an Anchorage member of the Republican majority.

The budget is expected to be up for a vote on the House floor this week when lawmakers return from a six-day mid-session break.

The Senate version of the operating budget should be ready for a statewide public hearing by March 23, Senate President Drue Pearce said. That's also nearly a month earlier than last year.

``We are on time and on a schedule such that the Legislature could actually adjourn early,'' said Pearce, an Anchorage Republican.

That doesn't mean the Legislature will leave early, Mulder said. He said finishing the budget early will provide time to focus on other complicated matters, such as figuring out how to continue paying for a program to provide affordable power to rural Alaska.

Democrats, who are in the minority, said quick work on the operating budget is nothing to crow about.

Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis said the Legislature hasn't dealt with the two most pressing issues facing the state - a long-term fiscal plan and regaining state control of subsistence hunting and fishing rules on federal lands in Alaska.

``I think the Republican majority is on track, based on the performance so far, to be a do-nothing Legislature,'' said Ellis, an Anchorage Democrat.

Democratic Sen. Kim Elton of Juneau said budget writers have not dealt with difficult money issues such as state employee labor contracts and the rural power cost issue.

``It's the big budget issues, the contentious budget issues, that are still hanging out there,'' Elton said.

Both sides agree some major issues remain to be resolved in the second half of the legislative session. Other problems will probably be left for future Legislatures.

A summary of some matters remaining to be addressed:

State employee contracts

Several big money questions have been left out of the budget to be dealt with separately. Gov. Tony Knowles' request for $13.8 million in general fund spending to give state workers raises is one of them.

``That's one issue that will probably end up being one of the last decisions we make,'' Mulder said.

He said many majority members value state employees, but finding money for the contracts will be difficult given that budget writers are faced with extra costs in other programs at the same time they're trying to cut $30 million from the budget.

Raises for state employees are not a popular spending item among many legislators' constituents, he said.

Rep. Bill Hudson, a Juneau Republican who supports the contracts, said it's too soon to guess what may happen with them. ``I think the fact it has not been dealt with expeditiously is probably a good sign,'' he said.

Juneau Democratic Rep. Beth Kerttula, however, worried separating the contracts from the rest of the budget may not be a good sign. It might be better if they were considered as part of the overall budget picture, she said.

School construction bonds and other bonds

Gov. Knowles and Mulder have both introduced school construction bond packages of more than $500 million.

Mulder's package also includes about $150 million more for projects such as deferred maintenance work on state buildings. Knowles has a separate $350 transportation bond package that would include money for two fast ferries in Southeast Alaska.

Mulder said he expects attention will begin to shift to the bond issues after the operating budget clears the House.

He predicts a school bond package will pass, but it will be smaller than either his or the governor's. He doesn't expect the governor's transportation bond package to make it through this year.

Senate President Pearce said she expects some sort of general obligation bond package to pass the Legislature, but it won't be just for schools. It may also include road and harbor work, deferred maintenance and other projects.

Cruise ship pollution bills

Of particular interest to Juneau are several bills dealing with cruise ship pollution.

Pearce, Knowles and Anchorage Republican Rep. Joe Green have proposals requiring cruise ships and many other large vessels to have oil spill prevention and contingency plans. The proposals also require such plans of the Alaska Railroad.

Sen. Loren Leman, an Anchorage Republican, has a measure to prevent cruise ships and some other large vessels from using a particularly toxic type of paint on their hulls.

Kerttula is sponsoring a bill requiring cruise ships to file reports indicating what pollution they dump into the water or put into the air.

Pearce's legislation probably will pass because as Senate president, she's in an excellent position to push it. It is a priority for her this session, she said. Leman's paint bill already passed the Senate easily and is awaiting House committee action.

As a minority Democrat, Kerttula will have a tougher fight to pass her bill. It's had no hearings yet, although she does have a commitment for a hearing later this month in the House Transportation Committee.

The fact that other bills dealing with the industry are moving makes her optimistic, Kerttula said. ``It's a bipartisan issue in terms of looking at the environment and looking at the impacts of the cruise ships and what everybody should be doing.''

Long-term fiscal plan

A group of moderate Republicans has been working on a long-term financial plan for the state that probably would include some mix of taxes and spending some Alaska Permanent Fund earnings. A news conference to unveil it was canceled more than a week ago, but Homer Republican Rep. Gail Phillips said the plan will be released soon.

However, some observers say since this is an election year, a plan that involves spending permanent fund earnings and raising taxes is not likely to fly - particularly since voters last fall resoundingly defeated a different proposal involving permanent fund earnings.

Also, rising oil prices, which fuel most of the state's budget, have taken some of the urgency out of the long-term budget issue this year.

``I would guess you're going to see the Legislature not try and get ahead of the public this go-round,'' Mulder said. ``I don't expect you're going to see a decision this year.''

But Phillips isn't willing to give up hope. The public may actually support the plan she and other Republican moderates are planning to unveil, rather than continue to endure budget cuts, she said.

In her district, she said, ``People are saying, `Hey, we understand you can't have everything for nothing.'''

Hudson has been working with Phillips on the plan.

Power cost equalization

Several lawmakers are working to find a way to fund Power Cost Equalization, the program that helps keep electric costs affordable in rural Alaska.

So far most of that work is going on in legislators' office, rather than in committees, though a couple of measures have been introduced to fund the $16 million per year program.

University of Alaska funding

Another big money question unresolved so far is University of Alaska funding. The House Finance Committee budget at this point provides no additional money for the university, but the university has asked for another $16.9 million.

Some lawmakers in both parties want to provide at least some of that money, including Sen. Gary Wilken, a Fairbanks Republican who sits on the Senate Finance Committee.

School funding

A couple of bills are in the hopper to give public schools more money to operate next year, but Mulder expects they won't pass. ``I think for this year those issues have largely been decided,'' he said.

Anchorage Republican Sen. Sean Parnell, co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, agreed. ``Anything can happen, but at this point I don't anticipate'' an increase in the school funding formula, he said.

Subsistence

It would be big news indeed if anything happened on subsistence this session.

Legislatures have tried repeatedly over the last decade to resolve the conflict between the federal requirement that rural residents receive a preference for subsistence hunting and fishing and the state constitution's requirement that no group receive a preference.

Lawmakers say nothing has changed to make resolution any easier since the last attempt failed in September. In fact, chances are probably worse this year because Alaska's Native community is no longer supporting the compromise they supported last year.

Juneau Empire reporter Svend Holst contributed to this report.



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