Lawmakers hit the home stretch

Gas line, budget, education and ethics reform still on table

Posted: Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Lawmakers have 30 days left to wrap up business with some heavy-hitting items sitting on their plates: budget; retirement funding; a gas line bill; ethics; education funding.

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The timetable begs two immediate questions: Will the Legislature adjourn May 16 with business completely accomplished? Can lawmakers adhere to a voter mandate next year and complete work in 90 days, a deadline that, if placed this year, could have ended the session Sunday?

A phrase that can make lawmakers wince is starting to come up in the Legislature: special session.

Lawmakers went through three special sessions last year and one in 2005, leaving a bitter taste with many of them.

"I will not rule out (a special session), but things in this body can get done pretty quickly," said Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, who is co-chairman of the House Finance Committee.

"I don't think we are that far off on the operating budget," he said. "I think there are some issues out there and I think we can work through them pretty quickly."

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Chenault's Senate finance committee counterpart, Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, isn't pleased about the prospects of not finishing the job on time.

"The sooner we get done, the better," Stedman said. "I don't know of anybody who wants a special session."

Still, lawmakers acknowledge finishing by mid-May is a tall order. Bills covering the budget and the gas line could be on a collision course for lawmakers' time.

The onus falls heavily on the respective finance committees trying to push through a budget while bracing for heavy lifting on Gov. Sarah Palin's Alaska Gasline Inducement Act.

The Senate has heard the House's operating budget, as per protocol; meanwhile the Senate still is completing its capital budget, which will be discussed by the House next.

The two sides are expected to begin hashing out their differences on the budgets within a few weeks.

Palin's gas line bill is being heard in the Senate Judiciary and the House Resources committees and could be ready for the finance committees next week, giving lawmakers about three weeks to pass a gas line bill.

"I can see us having morning meetings for AGIA and afternoon meetings for the operating and capital budget," Chenault said. "I don't have that on the schedule; I'm not planning that. We'll see how things work when those bills come across from the Senate."

For now, finance committee leaders say they optimistically hope to get most of their budget business complete in time to devote their efforts on AGIA.

"The idea is to clear the deck so that we have just AGIA on the table," Stedman said. "That is the goal, but I realize sometimes you don't meet all of your goals in life."

The remaining workload had lawmakers taking questions as to whether a 90-day session would realistically work next year.

The House has passed a bill for a 90-day session, but by the 91st day of this session, the Senate had not

Rep. Kurt Olson, R-Soldotna, says he's still concerned about a 90-day session reducing the public's role in lawmaking.

"I think one of our greatest concerns, too, is the public gets squeezed out of the process by cutting that 30 days out," Olson said. "We have to come to grips with how to deal with making sure the public becomes involved."

Rep. Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks, who was among three lawmakers who helped put the 90-day session on the ballot last year, saw it another way.

"I don't think the public will get squeezed out of the process," Ramras said. "I think Legislature will get squeezed out of four-day weekends. I think that is constructive for the process."



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