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Stimulus battle getting personal

Governor, legislators clash over willingness to meet about federal funds

Posted: Friday, March 27, 2009

Top legislative leaders and Gov. Sarah Palin clashed Thursday in a battle of press conferences and press releases. Both sides are accusing the other of canceling a meeting to discuss accepting federal stimulus money.

Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, called Palin's statements "absolutely false" that legislators would not meet with her to discuss accepting funds.

Palin earlier announced that she was only accepting a portion of the nearly $1 billion in stimulus money allocated for Alaska.

It wasn't clear, though, whether she would use her veto or other powers to block the remaining $288 million she didn't accept.

The federal stimulus bill, also called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, allows state legislatures to accept stimulus money when governors chose not to, but it doesn't override Palin's veto powers under the state constitution.

Legislators Thursday held a press conference to announce the creation of the "Alaskan Clearinghouse" to help guide cities, boroughs and community organizations through the process of identifying and obtaining stimulus money.

It was in the midst of that press conference with Stevens, House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, and other legislative leaders that a buzz went through the assembled crowd of reporters, photographers, and legislative aides about Palin's claim. Word of Palin's accusation that legislators were refusing to meet with her filtered through the crowd. Soon, an aide brought it to Stevens' attention.

"Governor Sarah Palin was scheduled to participate telephonically in a meeting with legislative leadership today when legislative leaders canceled the meeting to host their own press conference," Palin said in the press release.

That's what Stevens called false.

"I am sorry the governor put this out," he said.

Appearing at the press conference with Stevens and Chenault were Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, and Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, co-chairs respectively of the Senate and House Finance Committees. They've both clashed with fellow Republican Palin in the past, but it is rare for the easygoing Stevens to clash with anyone.

Lately, however, Stevens has been among a growing number of legislators who have complained that they can't find out from Palin's staff what her goals for the stimulus money are.

Palin said she "has made her position clear on stimulus funds."

She left Juneau in the midst of the stimulus debate Thursday, heading to Anchorage where she appointed Wayne Anthony Ross, former honorary co-chair of her gubernatorial campaign, as the state's Attorney General.

Stevens said legislators needed to hear from Palin herself what her goals were.

"We really need to have a face-to-face with the person who is the chief of government," Stevens said.

"We'd like to know what she's accepting, or not accepting," Chenault said.

Stevens, sitting next to Chenault, said the leadership was offered a meeting with Palin's staff, but that those meeting so far have not provided the information they need about Palin's intentions.

Sometimes the governor's staff can't find out what her plans are either, he said.

Palin's legislative liaison, Jerry Gallagher, declined to comment.

In a press release, Palin defended the possibility of rejecting some of the federal money.

"If the legislature wants to add funds to grow government, then I also want to hear how we will get out of the fiscal hole we'll be in just two years from now when those temporary stimulus funds are gone."

During the leaderships press conference is when Stevens and Chenault announced the creation of the Alaskan Clearinghouse, a joint venture between the federal Denali Commission and the Federal Executive Association.

That's needed by those around the state hoping to obtain the stimulus money for cities and group around Alaska, said Kathie Wasserman, executive director of the Alaska Municipal League.

She said they've been getting 30 calls a day on the topic, and the Legislature, Denali Commission, cities and groups are all devoting substantial staff time to clearing up the confusion.

"We're duplicating a lot of work," she said.

Wasserman also serves as a director of the Denali Commission. The new clearinghouse will be run out of Denali Commission offices in Anchorage, she said.

Stevens said the Governor needs to talk more with the Legislature, which he said she has not been willing to do.

"We need better communications with her, that's all we are asking for," he said.

Stevens and Gallagher said Palin declined to meet with them, but instead offered to have staff available.

That wasn't acceptable to legislators, who have been meeting regularly with the governor's staff.

Palin's staff, Stevens said, "apparently often have trouble answering questions or making decisions or letting us know the intentions of the administration."

Stevens replaced fellow Republican Sen. Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, as leader of the bi-partisan coalition that controls the Senate after Green did not run for re-election. Green and Palin were long-time political rivals that during Palin's tenure as Governor clashed on issues big and small.

Legislative leaders said they expected Palin, returning to Alaska as a newly minted Republican star, to get along better with the affable Stevens than she had with Green.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 586-4816 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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