Lawmakers begin last 2 weeks

Top legislators say not much accomplished in session so far

Posted: Monday, April 06, 2009

FAIRBANKS - The Alaska Legislature has completed work on just a handful of bills and resolutions, and with less than two weeks left in the 2009 session, minority senators are scoffing at what they say is a dearth of meaningful accomplishments.

The 90-day session ends at midnight April 19.

Sen. Con Bunde, R-Anchorage, has been particularly outspoken, singling out bills establishing Marmot Day and creating Iditarod license plates in contrast to unresolved weightier issues - state employee retirement benefits, health care issues and energy matters.

Sen. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, leads the Senate minority bloc. He said some general criticism is in order.

"If you look at the bills that have passed, they've been resolutions and whatnot," he said. "Which is fine, but they should not necessarily be the only thing. I'm not sure whether in the majority there is a plan to move some of the bigger issues along."

A budget to match declining revenue and the surprise bonus of federal economic stimulus money have tied up many working hours, but the pace could quicken over the last two weeks on some of the roughly 400 bills introduced this session, with House committees tentatively scheduled to shift their priorities to legislation funneled from the Senate on Wednesday or Thursday.

House Rules Committee Chairman John Coghill, R-North Pole said bills that might move are operational must-haves instead of policy matters.

Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, and Senate Pres. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, have said repeatedly the budget is the only thing the Legislature is obligated to pass. The four co-chairmen of the House and Senate Finance committees are working with Stevens and Chenault on the capital budget, supplemental appropriations and acceptance of federal stimulus dollars, said Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Fairbanks.

"It's the game of six right now," Kelly said. "The rest of us on the Finance Committee are just hearing bills and standing ready to address the compromise that's worked out between the two bodies."

Coghill called the spending plan a "frugal maintenance budget," holding state allocations at last year's levels despite falling oil production and revenues. To make ends meet, lawmakers will have to dip into billions they set aside last year in savings.

"We're borrowing everything to do our budget this year, so we're ... going to have to be frugal," he said. "But, we're still going to spend a lot of money.

"The secret hope is the price of oil goes back up and somebody finds another oil well and we'll be saved," he said.

Many lawmakers cited energy issues as a priority for the session, particularly after the state issued a $1,200 energy rebate to Alaskans last year. However, energy measures are not moving quickly, including several bills by Gov. Sarah Palin. Two involve development of in-state natural gas.

"There's some disagreement between her and some of the co-chairs on Finance," Coghill said. "If they hammer out an agreement, it'll probably go zipping right through."

The short list of bills that have passed include one to naming a Southeast coastal trail in honor of Joseph C. Williams, Sr., a measure addressing medical treatment fees for worker's compensation cases, and Sen. Charlie Huggins' bill establishing honorary license plates for people who have competed in the Iditarod.

No bills will die this year. Legislation not passed can be heard during the interim or the second session of the 26th Legislature, which starts Jan. 19.

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