The 2003 legislative session is moving along slowly with lawmakers at the halfway mark passing just three bills and 11 resolutions out of the 418 different measures introduced this session.
Rampart Sen. Georgianna Lincoln, a Democrat, said with so many freshman legislators in the House, she expects a slow session. There were 17 new lawmakers at the start of the session, and now there are 18 with Gov. Frank Murkowski's recent appointment of a replacement member in the House.
"There's 17 brand-new folks that are here, legislators, that are chairing committees, that are still wandering around, figuring out just how this process works," she said. "I expected it to be slow and I think it is slow."
House Majority Leader John Coghill of North Pole said he feels the number of freshmen is one factor affecting the texture of this session so far, though he said he is not displeased with the pace.
Coghill said the formation of the Murkowski administration took much of the Legislature's time in the early session.
"The time for organizing, the time for committee work, I think was appropriate, well used," he said. "It was slower with regard to bill process, but probably not slow with regard to public policy process, trying to find out what the governor wants in his public policy, looking at confirmations."
Senate President Gene Therriault, also of North Pole, agreed that the administration was slow to form.
"It took a little bit longer than I thought for the governor to get the majority of his commissioners, but I think he went through a really exhaustive process to come up with good people for the spots," he said.
But both parties agree that the major factor dictating the course of this year's session has been Murkowski's first budget proposal.
Incumbent governors deliver their budgets in mid-December, but Murkowski didn't get his final budget in until near the legislative deadline in early March. And the Legislature didn't get any early peeks at the document.
"That put us a little bit behind," Therriault said.
In the meantime, the legislative majority was unwilling to take any broad stands on economic policy, awaiting their "marching orders" from Murkowski.
"This year we started with pretty much of an open-ended budget discussion until the governor came in with his amended budget," said Coghill.
When the budget came out, it was complicated, requiring dozens of bills to be passed in order to install budget cuts, taxes and user fees.
"To be hit with 26-plus bills that are really critical issues to every segment of Alaska, and especially with the taxes, and to be hit that hard with it ... my jaw was hitting the floor," said Lincoln.
To complicate matters, Murkowski's proposals weren't well-thought out, said Rep. David Guttenberg, a Fairbanks Democrat.
"When you come to the table with major initiatives, you would think that from the time he took office he would have his people working on those things and they would be developed," he said. "We're not seeing that."
With two months to go, the Legislature has just begun to scratch the surface of the budget. Most of the bills have been heard by just one or two committees and none have come up for a floor vote. Democrats argue that the nature of the document has led to and will continue to lead to delays.
"The work product itself is less thorough than what we've grown accustomed to, I think that complicates the Legislature's task considerably," said House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, an Anchorage Democrat.
Therriault said under the circumstances, some of the governor's budget ideas will likely have to wait until next year or could be dropped entirely. But he also argued that the legislative majority will be more agreeable to the budget this year because there is no longer the element of distrust that existed between the GOP and the administration of ex-Gov. Tony Knowles.
That's an opinion shared by Fairbanks Republican Sen. Gary Wilken, co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee.
"We are and will spend less time in our budget subcommittees, trying to craft the budget, because there's a better relationship between the Legislature and the administrative branch, and the agencies," he said. "That's going to compress the budget cycle."
Despite the delayed budget, both sides say they expect this year's Legislature to be able to finish on time in late May, though that may leave some budget measures to be dealt with next year.
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