Senate OKs Murkowski's 2005 budget

Democrats push unsuccessful amendments on Ruedrich investigation, shallow gas leases

Posted: Friday, April 23, 2004

Senate Republicans endorsed a $2.3 billion general fund operating budget on Thursday, granting Gov. Frank Murkowski much of the spending plan he had proposed for fiscal 2005.

It cleared the Senate over the objection of minority Democrats, who unsuccessfully offered budget amendments taking the administration and other GOP lawmakers to task for some of their controversial decisions.

They pushed for votes on the ethics investigation against the state GOP chairman, shallow gas leases that have enraged some Alaskans and more money for K-12 education, rural and social services programs.

"We're trying to clean up messes that the Murkowski administration and this Legislature created," said Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage.

Democrats offered an amendment to spend $60,000 from the governor's contingency fund for a special prosecutor to investigate GOP Chairman Randy Ruedrich.

Ruedrich resigned as a state oil and gas conservation commissioner, a $118,000 per-year post he was appointed to by Murkowski, amid allegations that he did party work while on the job.

The state Department of Law has filed an ethics complaint against Ruedrich following a lengthy investigation.

Attorney General Gregg Renkes, also a Murkowski appointee, said he formally recused himself from the matter to avoid any appearance of impropriety or conflict of interest.

But Democrats aren't satisfied the investigation can be handled fairly. "It's all about public confidence," said Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage.

The amendment was rejected by a 8-12 vote, with all Republicans voting against spending the money.

Republican lawmakers also rejected an amendment to set aside $10 million to buy back shallow natural gas leases which have angered some residents in the Kenai Peninsula and Matanuska Susitna boroughs.

Sen. Scott Ogan, R-Palmer, faces a recall effort in his Mat-Su district for taking a $40,000-per-year consultant job with Evergreen Resources, a company proposing to explore for coal bed methane there.

Critics contend Ogan's legislative activities enabled Evergreen to acquire coal bed methane leases to drill on private land. Ogan voted against the amendment on Thursday.

"I could have voted for it and it would have been a cheap political vote for me, but that's not how I am," Ogan said. "I always do what I think is the best policy for the state."

Senate Republicans ratified an $82 million increase in K-12 education that they had previously proposed, but rejected a Democrat bid for $2.5 million more.

Democrat amendments to increase spending on tobacco cessation, domestic violence shelters, youth courts and more village public safety officers also failed.

"It was all about embarrassment and not about substance," said Senate President Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, who dismissed Democrat efforts as "pure show and not for go."

Therriault said he was satisfied with the administration's decision to pick Assistant Attorney General Barbara Ritchie - chief of the opinions, appeals and ethics section - to investigate Ruedrich.

The budget passed the Senate on a party-line 12-8 vote and can come up again before it is sent to the House to consider changes.

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