Legislators blame Palin for deteriorating relationship

Lawmakers say governor absent from legislative process; Palin denies problem

Posted: Sunday, April 12, 2009

A star of the national Republican party, Gov. Sarah Palin is increasingly finding herself at odds with leaders of her own party in the Alaska Legislature.

Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

At the same time, Democrats who once backed the still-popular governor have been alienated by partisan attacks during and since Palin's vice-presidential campaign.

Many leaders in the Republican-dominated Legislature say they're baffled at the Palin administration's failure to push even its own bills.

Among the Republicans' biggest complaints: Palin is disengaged from the legislative process. There have been multiple complaints that Palin administration officials won't take positions on bills, including any indication about whether the governor is likely to sign bills that make it through the process.

Palin denied problems in her relationship with the Legislature.

"We have a very good working relationship, as far as we know, with lawmakers," she said Friday.

A House Finance Committee co-chair, and frequent Palin ally, said he was "baffled" by the absences.

Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, has been pushing a bill requiring parental consent for minors seeking abortions. That's something Palin continues to identify as a top priority for the session, but when it came up before Stoltze's committee, no one from the administration was there to support the bill or answer questions.

"I can't explain their not even being in the room; that baffles me," Stoltze said. "This is supposedly a top administration priority."

Rep. John Coghill, R-North Pole, who was there to support the bill, tried to smooth things over. Coghill said he should have spent more time trying to get someone from the administration to attend the meeting.

"I have probably not been as diligent in picking up the phone every day and asking," he said.

Rep. John Harris, R-Valdez, said he introduced a bill on behalf of the Palin administration to delay implementation of cruise ship wastewater discharge standards.

"It really should have been the administration sponsoring the bill, quite frankly," Harris said.

The former House speaker said he then had to pressure the administration to support the bill they'd sought, telling them, "this is your baby."

Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, said it has been difficult to deal with state acceptance of federal stimulus money, because legislators can't get answers about whether Palin will veto budgets that include stimulus money.

"We have asked; we have not received a clear answer," Stevens said.

A Senate Finance Committee co-chair, Sen. Bert Stedman. R-Sitka, said the administration seems to seek legislators to introduce bills, but often doesn't support them or give positions on legislators' own bills.

"If they have some bills they are interested in, I would suggest they engage in the process," Stedman said. He said Palin was not even pushing her own bills.

Palin said she didn't know whether lawmakers were unhappy with how she was dealing with them.

"It's tough to judge the happiness quotient in this building," she said Friday in her Capitol office.

Palin denied there was anything different in her relationship with the Legislature following her run for national office.

Last year, her relationship appeared rocky as well, but broader issues such as oil tax reform and progress on a natural gas pipeline overrode some disputes and progress was made.

Last session, legislators printed up "Where's Sarah?" buttons to highlight her disengagement.

And after she vetoed money from the state's capital budget, saying it was too large, Stedman said that was her fault. The Legislature wouldn't have included the money in the first place if Palin had told lawmakers how much she was willing to spend, he said, but then Palin wouldn't have been able to cite the vetoes as evidence of her fiscal conservatism in her vice presidential campaign.

On Friday, Palin declined to comment on her plans for a future run for national office, or whether that might be affecting her relationship with the Legislature. But the most telling detail may have been the fact that the question was posed by a New York Times reporter who was visiting Juneau to cover Palin.

Palin's relationship with the Legislature may have become more strained because she has fewer allies on which she can rely. In the previous two years, Democrats provided crucial support for ethics and tax reforms, helping the first-term governor win big victories.

After a bitterly partisan fall campaign, Democrats have been largely silent about the governor.

Palin said in her view, her relationship with Democrats in the Legislature was fine. "Perhaps it is more strained on their end," she said.

One of the Democrats who has met opposition from Palin is House Minority Leader Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, who the governor has adamantly refused to appoint to Juneau's empty Senate seat despite local Democratic support.

"Nothing has changed on my part in my willingness to work with them," she said.

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

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