The bill graveyard

In the Legislature's closing days, Finance co-chairs rule

Posted: Friday, April 16, 2010

They're calling it the "Burt Locker," and dozens of legislative dreams are expected to die in it in the next few days.

Chris Miller / The Associated Press
Chris Miller / The Associated Press

In the closing days of the Alaska Legislature, where the 90-day legislative session ends at midnight Sunday, numerous bills have stacked up and are being held in the Senate Finance Committee, where powerful co-chairman Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, holds their fate in his gavel.

As of Thursday, 130 bills are awaiting action there, more than any other committee.

Some, such as Juneau's subport development bill, have been there for more than a year without action, despite the repeated efforts of Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau, and other members of the city's delegation.

"We're now exploring other options," Muñoz said.

Some bills have been there months longer, sitting in the Burt Locker not just all of this session, but most of last year's session as well. Bills that aren't passed by the end of the two-year 26th Alaska Legislature die, as do most bills that are introduced every session.

In the Legislative process, the Rules Committees in each body schedules bills for the floor votes they need to win final approval, but most bills must first get through Finance to be able to get to the floor.

Under Legislative rules, every bill that spends money and thus has a "fiscal note" attached must go through the Finance committees in the House and Senate. That in addition to any other committees they are referred to by the presiding officers.

Sometimes, bills that don't seem to merit a fiscal note get referred to Finance anyway.

A bill to add a second verse to the "Alaska Flag Song," got a fiscal note when Gov. Sean Parnell's staff reversed course and decided it might cost the state an indeterminate amount of money to implement.

House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikisiki, announced the bill's new fate on the floor of the House this week.

"An act adding a second verse to the official Alaska state song has picked up a fiscal note, and will get a Finance referral," he said, to a round of groans from legislators accustomed to seeing their own work stall or die in a Finance committee.

It happens in both committees, but legislators say Stedman is a notable practitioner of the art of using the power of the Finance committee.

That can cut both ways, however. Stedman also has some bills which he thinks are important but which House Finance Committee co-chairs now control.

The senator badly wants to become law his bill decoupling oil and gas taxes. In the Senate, where few members would challenge a Finance co-chair's bill even if they were so inclined, moved in quickly.

Now it's in the House, where it is in the House Finance Committee, co-chaired by one of the House's most influential members, Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage.

He's the one who called the Senate Finance Committee "The Burt Locker."

That give-and-take process may help explain why the Senate Finance Committee is holding so many bills, said Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, and House Minority leader.

"That's what Bert is holding onto Hawker's bills for, he wants that decoupling bill," she said.

That's how the process works, especially in the last days of the legislative session, and it can take more than just a bill's merits to get it passed, said Rep. Mike Doogan, D-Anchorage.

"In the last three weeks, things start to stick to other things," he said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250

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