Politics still ticking

Legislature passes 90-day mark

Posted: Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Alaska Legislature over the weekend passed the 90-day mark, when some lawmakers would like sessions to end.

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But with several major bills outstanding, the operating and capital budgets incomplete and an oil-tax reform plan brewing in committees, legislators are far from finishing their business for the year.

As the session is set to end May 9, legislators and the administration speculate there will be two special sessions this summer - one to review a possible natural gas pipeline contract and another preceding it to include a new oil tax structure in the contract.

Alaska lawmakers calling for future sessions to be shorter still say their goal is realistic.

"Sure we can do our work in 90 days. This Legislature hasn't. The first 45 days hardly anything happened here at all," said Rep. Eric Croft, D-Anchorage, a candidate for governor.

Voters will determine in November the length of future sessions, as a ballot initiative would shorten them from four months to three.

Croft co-sponsored House Bill 22 along with seven House Republicans, calling for a 90-day session. But because of a lack of interest in the Senate, Croft said he doubts the bill will make it to the floor for a vote.

Several legislators think a 90-day session would be bad for government.

"In my opinion, I think it does a disservice to Alaskans," said House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez.

House Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, agrees that shortening lawmakers' time in Juneau would diminish the public's voice in government.

Coghill added that it's hard to get around federal mandates, laws and regulations that legislators must wade through each session.

"Whether or not we like it, we have huge bureaucracy," he said.

Rep. Jay Ramras, a Fairbanks Republican sponsoring the ballot initiative, said the problem lies with too many bills being introduced, procrastination and political wrangling.

"The fact of the matter is we get around to (the most significant legislation) on day 118, 119, 120 and 121 and on into the special session when the Senate and the House tend to play chicken," he said.

The Legislature this year has been consumed with a proposal to scrap the current oil tax, which is based on production, and replace it with one that collects on oil producers' profits and brings in additional revenue at sky-high oil prices.

Gov. Frank Murkowski introduced his bill in late February and committees are still taking testimony on the proposal. Harris said legislators may wait until the special session to finish the oil-tax bill.

Committees are bringing in a crop of experts to explain the mechanics of the bill and seeking comment from the public, the administration and the oil producers. Lawmakers are being cautious of setting the tax rate too high, as Murkowski has said a higher rate than his proposed 20 percent could be a deal breaker on the gas pipeline contract.

Ramras said if lawmakers received the bill earlier, the Legislature would be further along in the process.

"It should have been introduced on day one," he said.

Some legislators say almost every year a major issue surfaces that requires extensive hearings and debate.

"We've had special sessions almost every year I've been in office," said Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau.

On the oil tax, she added that the Legislature should stay in Juneau as long it takes to get it right.

• Andrew Petty can be reached at andrew.petty@juneauempire.com.

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