Budget in spotlight as session nears end

Thursday session to consider appointments, including Ross

Posted: Thursday, April 16, 2009

The last days of a legislative session usually mean little sleep and a flurry of bills passed before the final ticks of the clock. State Senate leaders say that's not likely this year.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

On Tuesday, senators said the last five days will be spent working out final spending details and considering Gov. Sarah Palin's cabinet and board appointees.

They do not expect a long list of bills Sunday, the deadline to adjourn. Voters who believe lawmakers govern best when they govern least should be pleased, said Senate Majority Leader Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage.

"I don't think the vast majority of Alaska voters are going to be disappointed with our performance this year, if we get the basics done," Ellis said. "This is a back-to-basics session with operating, capital and stimulus money."

A climactic moment is scheduled for Thursday. Lawmakers will gather in a joint session to consider appointments, including Attorney General-designee Wayne Anthony Ross. He faces opposition for his stance against a subsistence hunting and fishing preferences for rural Alaskans, and for linking homosexuality with words such as "immoral" and "perversion" in a 1993 letter printed by the Alaska Bar Association newsletter.

Also, sport fishing representatives have assembled in Juneau to oppose the appointment of Brent Johnson to the Board of Fisheries, claiming his ties to commercial fishing will tip the balance toward them in allocation decisions.

But senators said much of the heavy lifting for the session already has been done - sorting out money issues.

Lawmakers had the usual job of building budgets for services and construction projects. It was complicated by falling crude oil prices and a need to dip into savings. Then came a sudden gush of federal money courtesy of the president's stimulus package.

"It was the trifecta," Ellis said. "It was sort of confusing and disorienting to the Legislature to have budget constraints from the relatively low commodity price for crude and then have federal government tax dollars coming at us in a torrent."

The Senate and House Finance committees gathered in January knowing there would be a huge potential draw on state savings accounts, said Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka. The stimulus money followed and sorting out the details consumed an immense amount of time, Stedman said.

An overriding theme has been careful review of new legislation to see how much it would cost, Ellis and Stedman said.

"Oil price tempered a lot of legislators' enthusiasm for new programs, or expansions of programs," Ellis said.

As of Monday, new or expanded programs have added just $3 million to the budget on the Senate side, a figure Stedman called "very low."

"I think as long as we're in a position where we're drawing out a billion, possibly a billion and a half a year, out of our savings, or out of our reserves, I think you're going to see the finance committees of both bodies be very cautious about adding to the drain on the treasury," he said.



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