Legislature's 'fast and furious' final days

Posted: Sunday, April 25, 2010

The second session of the 26th Alaska Legislature ended last weekend with a mixed bag of results for Alaska's capital city. With the regular legislative session still operating on the voter-imposed 90-day schedule (compared to 120 days), things move fast and furiously at the end.

Among the biggest successes of the 2010 session was the passage of legislation to set the cruise ship passenger tax at an appropriate level.

Senate Bill 312, originally put forward by Gov. Sean Parnell to bring down the surcharge on those who visit Alaska on giant cruise ships, was established at $50 per person following a voter-approved initiative several years ago. Cruise lines then began shifting vessels to other popular cruise destinations, an alarming trend with dire consequences for our economy from Southeast to the Interior.

Funds generated by the levy were not being spent appropriately at ports-of-call, and were piling up unused. This compromise between Alaska's elected leaders and the cruise industry will generate income briskly without gouging cruise lines (and ultimately their passengers) in a way that discourages travel to the Great Land.

Many Juneau residents were disheartened that Rep. Cathy Muñoz's House Bill 161, which sailed through the House unanimously last year, got stuck in Senate Finance and languished there until its death at this year's adjournment. There is a desperate need for newer long-term office space for state employees in Juneau, and the so-called 'plywood palace' doesn't fill that need. HB 161 would have directed the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority to build a modern facility to house large numbers of workers from several state departments. While some questioned the aesthetic wisdom of constructing a five-story building on Juneau's waterfront, it was a deal with huge benefits for the capital city - had it only passed.

Post-session revelations from committee leaders about why the bill was never granted a hearing were somewhat confusing, but there is a silver lining in the form of $5 million in the capital budget to plan for new state offices in Juneau. This is something we as a community must come together and make happen. It's our responsibility and privilege as residents in the capital city.

Speaking of the capital budget, which metastasized to Brobdingnagian proportions in the final weeks of the session, there're some obvious places for Gov. Parnell to cut. But there also are some items important to Juneau that will hopefully survive his veto pen, such as the long overdue Johnson Youth Center renovation.

The truth, however, is that a $3 billion budget is too much, and Gov. Parnell now has the unenviable task of separating the wheat from the chaff.

Perhaps the least understood, and most debated, bill this past session was SB 305, affecting tax rates for natural gas and petroleum.

Tax de-coupling is an issue that wasn't on most Alaskans' minds until recently, if even now. Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, deserves credit for tackling the tough question of what correlation between taxes on these two differently priced, yet simultaneously-extracted, commodities mean for the state's coffers in the short- to long-term future.

Because both oil and gas meet hydrocarbon-based energy needs, there is a tendency to lump them together, but in the long run Sen. Stedman thinks this could cost Alaskans dearly. SB 305 passed the Senate by a wide margin, and on a closer vote in the House. It is now on Gov. Parnell's desk, and he has pledged to decide whether to sign or veto it by May 1, in time for the 'open season' on potential gasline projects.

Either way, the issue of what can fairly be assessed on both hydrocarbons for the benefit of Alaskans will persist, and public understanding of this complex, but important issue has advanced.

Far more bills failed to pass than those that made it through. That's true in every session, but even more so this year. The inherent inefficiency of the 90-day session manifested itself again, cramming too many meetings and votes into too short a window. At the same time, there were some wonderful enhancements to legislative operations, most notably the Thomas Stewart Legislative Office Building connected to the Capitol by the sky-bridge over Seward Street.

Also important to note is that Juneau did its customary job of being welcoming and hospitable to the legislators, staff and all others here for the session. While it looks unlikely that we'll have the pleasure of welcoming our fellow Alaskans back to Juneau for a special session this year, that just gives us time to make things even better for our friends returning next January.

• Ben Brown is a Juneau attorney and chair of the Capital City Republicans.

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