Lawmakers expect a quiet end to session

Posted: Monday, April 07, 2008

The Alaska Legislature may find itself in an unfamiliar situation come midnight April 13, one in which spats over the budget are minimal.

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Al Grillo / The Associated Press
Al Grillo / The Associated Press

Most of the heavy lifting is complete, with the House working on the budget's final segment - capital appropriations - as lawmakers enter the home stretch of their first 90-day session.

It helps that, unlike past years, there were no marquee bills or pressing legislation pushing lawmakers to an impasse that has to be resolved in another session.

Some days, the biggest squabble was over how much money should be saved rather than spent by a state enjoying surplus revenue from new tax laws and high oil prices.

While lawmakers appear headed for a potentially quiet finale, most who have spent a few years in the Capitol halls know anything remains possible.

Hundreds of bills still await legislative approval, but because it's the second of a two-year Legislature, bills not passed by session's end will die.

That could set off a flurry of last-minute activity because the Legislature is under the 24-hour notice rule, meaning bills can move much faster in waning days.

"You've got the pot being stirred so it could be an entertaining end-of-session," said House Minority Leader Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau. "The end-of-session has long periods of waiting, but then you have to be ready to move real fast."

This year, lawmakers held a shortened 90-day session, a voter-mandated reduction from the traditional 121 days.

So, with less time, lawmakers jump-started some of their work last summer when a task force drafted a plan for education funding.

Last year, the House and Senate couldn't agree on a formula and relied on some stopgap funding, setting aside the work for a later date.

Solving that difference early helped accelerate the Legislature's budgeting debate, one which is often divisive.

The budget debates still produced some lively times in the Capitol. Gov. Sarah Palin and the Legislature publicly aired several of their appropriations differences. More could be ahead.

The House and Senate still have to work out some minor differences on a $10 billion operating budget and Palin has already signed a $4.3 billion supplemental budget.

Among the toughest decisions is how much the state plans to save.

The state expects to reap more than $8 billion in surplus revenues over this fiscal year and next from high oil prices and a new oil production tax. Lawmakers have already set aside $5 billion in 2008 and 2009 state revenues, and said they intend to set aside even more later.

"The good news is, there was a lot of money; that keeps the debate down," said House Rules Chairman John Coghill, a North Pole Republican in his 10th year in office. "You're not fighting over the last nickel because there were a lot of nickels for everybody.

"The bad news is, the capital budget will balloon because of that. But when I step back and look at the needs of Alaska, the energy pressure that's on every homeowner. To get money into the economy, as long as it's not done foolishly, I'm probably not going to fight it so much."

Those exorbitant prices could produce a few more energy-related bills within the next seven days.

A few of those include:

• A bill sponsored by House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez, and Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines, to establish a $300 million renewable energy fund.

• An energy relief bill, also sponsored by Thomas, calling for an extra $500 per person from the state's permanent fund.

• A bill from Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, who is proposing rebates on home weatherization to low-income families.

Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, who serves as co-chairman for the Senate Finance Committee, said energy relief bills will be a priority.

"We are trying to address the impact on our citizens of high energy costs and I think you'll see a continued effort on that next year," he said. "I personally feel oil is more likely to stay higher than lower."

Stedman's committee also has more than 100 bills awaiting review, including 15 introduced by Palin.

"The unfortunate thing is for whatever reason Senate leadership is still sitting on those bills," Palin said. "We haven't seen any progress there.

"It's going to be a rush job in the last week and a half. There is still a lot of work to be done. A lot of our priorities hopefully will still be addressed."

Stedman said the bills will get due consideration.

"Her bills will be reviewed with all the other bills in the committee," Stedman said. "We'll prioritize our work and move forward."

What bills survive the final week could determine just how successful the session truly is, some lawmakers said.

"Once it's all done, we'll ask was it a success? The answer is yes, we got it done," said Senate Minority Leader Gene Therriault, R-North Pole.

"But we'll still have to ask ourselves what bills got left behind? What bills got left undone? Those question still have to be asked."

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