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Alaska editorial: 2009 Legislative session: The good, bad and so-so

Posted: Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Alaska Legislature that just adjourned was the first in years that faced low oil prices and had to grapple with shrinking state revenue. And legislators had to suddenly become experts on the stimulus bill after Gov. Sarah Palin in mid-session said she was only asking for two-thirds of the $930.7 million of the federal stimulus money slated for Alaska. The Legislature rose to the challenge on both fronts. Responsibly handling money questions was the most significant accomplishment of this session, in which only a small number of other bills passed.

The Legislature passed a $9.7 billion operating budget, compared to $11.2 billion approved by in 2008. Legislators approved a $1.8 billion capital budget, beefed up by the portion of federal stimulus money that Gov. Palin did accept.

It's not yet clear how much, if any, of the spending Gov. Palin will veto. Legislators handed her a responsible package that doesn't require obvious cutting.

Here's a review of other measures the Legislature dealt with:

THE BEST THAT PASSED

ENERGY - Legislators agreed to put $7 million into advance work for an in-state gas pipeline but wisely removed the earmark directing it to a bullet line that would follow the Parks Highway. Low-income Alaskans and rural residents will get more help with high energy bills, thanks to two newly passed measures.

PRESCHOOLS - The Legislature agreed to start up a pilot program of public preschools around Alaska, which was one of Palin's priorities. The preschools, operated by school districts, will give mostly 4-year-olds an early start. The Legislature also increased funding for Head Start, a federal preschool program.

MINIMUM WAGE - Lawmakers approved the smallest of the proposed increases, voting to match the new federal minimum of $7.25 an hour in July, then raising it to $7.75 in 2010. While unfortunately keeping Alaska at the lowest minimum on the West Coast, the law does retain a provision requiring Alaska's minimum to remain 50 cents higher than Uncle Sam's.

CRUISE SHIPS - After much wrangling and testimony, the Legislature retained a key provision of the 2006 Cruise Ship Initiative - ships have to meet Alaska water quality standards at the point of wastewater discharge. No mixing zones. All ships dumping in Alaska waters will have be in compliance by 2015.

DIDN'T PASS, BUT SHOULD HAVE

DENALI KIDCARE - Alaska remains one of the stingiest states in the nation in its children's health insurance for the working poor and middle class families. While most states open their programs to children in families earning up to double the federal poverty rate, Alaska only covers those with incomes up to 175 percent of the poverty rate. The governor was behind the bill to expand the program to double the poverty rate, the Senate passed it, but it never made it out of the House Health, Education and Social Services Committee, much to the committee's shame.

DARFUR DISINVESTMENT - None of several bills taking Alaska's money out of companies doing business with the Sudanese government made it out of the Legislature. Sudan has practiced genocide in Darfur for years. We understand the Permanent Fund board and other state investors can't respond to every political wind. But fiduciary responsibility is no excuse for blinking at genocide. If investors don't know better, lawmakers should.

FOSTER CARE - Bills to extend housing assistance for young people coming out of foster care, extend foster-care eligibility for two years and provide more education assistance for foster children didn't come to a vote this session. Some of these Alaska kids have the roughest roads to travel, and they often lead to homelessness, substance abuse and crime. Never mind marmots and malemutes; give these kids a better chance. Maybe next session.

GAS-PRICE GOUGING - Rep. Pete Petersen took the lead on legislation to limit what Alaska refiners could charge retailers for fuel products. Rep. Kurt Olson never let the bill out of his committee. If Alaska prices remain the nation's highest - despite our oil wealth, zero state gasoline tax and in-state refineries - you can bet a fill-up the issue won't go away. Refiners prevailed this time, but too many questions about our persistently high gasoline prices remain unanswered.

GOOD THING THESE DIDN'T PASS

ABORTION RIGHTS - Gov. Palin and her legislative supporters failed to pass a bill requiring parental consent before a teenager could get an abortion. Most teens involve their parents in abortion decisions. But teens must live with the decision, not their parents, and sometimes parents are part of the problem. Time spent on the subject was time lawmakers could have used to make progress on more pressing issues.

DEATH PENALTY - House speaker Mike Chenault brought forward a death penalty bill, knowing it wouldn't pass this session. Here's hoping it doesn't pass next session, either.

ENERGY INVESTMENTS - House Bill 44, which covered bonding and energy programs, at one point included the lines "authorizing the Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation to make in-state energy project investments." Bad idea. Reps. Mike Doogan and Berta Gardner caught that bit of mischief, introduced an amendment to delete it and the House agreed 22-15. Good idea.



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