Lawmakers OK capital budget, adjourn on time

Posted: Monday, April 14, 2008

The Legislature adjourned Sunday with hours to spare from its newly required 90-day session, after giving final approval to a $2.7 billion capital budget.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Next up: Vetoes from Gov. Sarah Palin, who has objected to how much the Legislature was spending.

"Certainly there will be vetoes, we all expect that," said Rep. Kevin Meyer, co-chairman of the powerful House Finance Committee, and one of the chief authors of the budget.

The capital budget consists mostly of projects scattered around the sate, but drew less criticism than its companion, the operating budget, did earlier. That's because the mostly one-time expenditures in a capital budget don't continue to cost the state as much in future years, when money is expected to be tighter.

Budget battles continued even after the early afternoon adjournment Sunday, as legislative leaders defended their budget in press conferences and Palin responded with her own.

On an inflation-adjusted basis, this year's capital budget remains below those of the 1980s, Meyer said.

The budget could easily have been much higher, many said.

"This is a vast, vast state, with many needs," said Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, and co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

His co-chairman, Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, said it was to be expected that the state would spend more money when oil revenues were flowing.

"We catch up on many years of deferred maintenance from when we had tight budgets," he said.

House Speaker John Harris said requests for money went unanswered, despite the big budget.

"There's a tremendous amount of requests that never got funded," he said.

Budget experts in both the House and Senate urged the media to focus more on the money that they didn't spend, instead of what they did spend.

"We took a lot of money off the table so we wouldn't spend it, couldn't spent it," Meyer said.

Senate Majority Leader Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, and other members of Senate President Lyda Green, R-Wasilla's bipartisan majority caucus, have recently been sporting buttons touting the Legislature's "savings spree."

"I'm must so proud of us putting $5 billion away," said Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage.

They may put away more than that, if Palin makes good on the line-item vetoes she suggested she'll make.

Vetoes could come from the capital budget or elsewhere, she said.

Even the Palin administration's own operations aren't "veto proof," she said.

Palin suggested a capital budget of $2 billion seemed better, but didn't know whether that was possible.

Legislative leaders said Palin never said how big she wanted the budget to be during negotiations.

"The governor never really gave us a target number," Meyer said.

House Democratic Leader Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, said having a target would have been helpful.

"It would have been good to have that number up front, but I don't know when she came to it," Kerttula said.

A similar issue happened last year. Palin frequently urged legislators to rein in spending, but didn't ever say precisely what was acceptable. Her vetoes then took legislators by surprise. Harris said earlier that was one reason for rocky relations between the governor and legislative leaders of her own party earlier in the session.

Palin's comments Sunday may have been designed to prevent any similar surprises this year.

Palin also avoided inflammatory comments Sunday and complimented legislators on points of agreement.

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