Oil tax took over session

Some lawmakers OK just passing fair tax reform

Posted: Monday, May 01, 2006

When the legislative session began Jan. 9, almost none of the Alaska lawmakers could predict three little letters - PPT - were about to dominate the session.

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PPT, standing for Petroleum Production Tax, is the proposed tax regime that aims to collect on oil companies' profits and replace the existing one that taxes production at the wellhead and gives breaks to several leases.

A number of economists have said Alaska's current tax system is outdated and losing out during an era of high oil prices.

House Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, said members were clearing their calendars in anticipation of having a natural gas pipeline contract to review during their four months in Juneau this year.

While the governor said he reached an agreement with the three major oil companies - ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil and BP - to build the $25 billion pipeline, a contract hasn't been handed to lawmakers yet.

Since late February, when PPT was introduced, Coghill said the session has run much like an NBA game, with 20 or so players breaking a sweat over the tax bill and the rest on the sidelines or in the crowd cheering them on.

In the meantime, some 821 other bills, plus a number of resolutions, have been piling on the table since the 24th Legislature was sworn in in January 2005.

Lawmakers have passed a fraction of those - about 136 so far - and the rest will expire unless the bodies take action before this session ends May 9.

Bills such as one that creates special license plates for Masons or another that lets restaurant patrons carry opened but recorked wine bottles home may not reach the House or Senate floor before the deadline.

"I don't fall in love with legislation," said Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, R-Juneau, whose bill related to fetal alcohol syndrome has not passed this year.

Many legislators have had to sacrifice personal legislation to focus on the oil tax.

"I don't think any of us should feel badly that other things should be left behind, if in fact we get a fair share of oil tax dollars," said Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau.

Elton added that reinstating community revenue-sharing also should have been a priority this year. The program that brought thousands of dollars to communities each year was discontinued in 2003 by the Murkowski administration.

Senate Finance Committee Co-Chairwoman Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, and House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez, said members were working toward putting a revenue sharing mechanism into the capital budget.

Harris said he heard the latest number offered for revenue-sharing is $60 million and that may include funding for communities hurt by the high prices of energy. The revenue-sharing offer would be a one-time deal, he said.

"Next year, it may be a two-time deal," Harris said. "We'll just have to see how much money we get."

Gov. Frank Murkowski included money in his supplemental budget for several programs that addressed energy needs. Republican lawmakers yanked out some of the funding when they passed the supplemental budget a few weeks ago, but with the promise to put energy dollars into the capital budget later this session.

Some bills that raised eyebrows and caught headlines throughout the past four months still have a chance of becoming laws if they are heard in time. And some will likely die, as they do not have enough support to make a debate on the floor worth legislators' time.

These bills include:

• House Bill 23, which would make bidding for building a new legislative hall fair game for Alaska municipalities with populations of more than 30,000. Sponsor Rep. Norm Rokeberg, R-Anchorage, said the bill does not have enough support in the House for a debate on the floor.

• Senate Joint Resolution 20, which proposes an amendment to the Alaska Constitution aimed at overriding a mandate set by the Alaska Supreme Court last summer, which allowed same-sex partners of state workers to receive benefits. The resolution passed through the Senate Finance Committee on Friday and is headed to the Senate floor for a vote.

• House Bill 149, which aims to overturn an Alaska Supreme Court decision allowing residents to possess up to 4 ounces of marijuana in their homes and also curb home manufacturing of methamphetamine. The House rejected on a vote of 19-21 a new version rewritten by a conference committee, but Murkowski said last week his staff would work on convincing a handful of lawmakers to change their votes.

Murkowski added that the legislation was one of his "must-pass" bills and he would consider adding it to the agenda of a special session.

• House Bill 22, which would limit the four-month session to 90 days. Sponsors say because of a lack of support for the bill in the Senate, it will likely not see debate again. But voters will be able to decide the length of the session in November when an initiative with the same intentions will be on the ballot.

• Senate Bill 186, known as the "ethics bill," which would limit the amount of ownership a public employee can have in a corporation and also restrict persons from knowingly making wrongful ethics complaints. The bill awaits action in the House Rules Committee.

House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage, said a flurry of Democratic bills relating to health care, public safety and energy problems were not considered.

"If we would have been in charge, the issues that make the most difference to people would have gotten hearings and would have been enacted," Berkowitz said.

Rep. David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks, has a marker board in his office with a red box drawn around seven of his bills aimed at reducing the costs of prescription drugs. All of the bills are bogged down in committees.

Guttenberg plans to perfect the bills during the interim and reintroduce them next year. He said he doesn't fault the Legislature's focus on the oil tax plan for ignoring his bills, but an administration unwilling to challenge the pharmaceutical companies.

So far, only one afternoon in the House Finance Committee has been devoted to discussing education funding, said Bill Bjork, president of the Alaska chapter of the National Education Association.

"Education has gotten pushed off into a nasty little ignored corner. And it's the largest line item in the budget," he said.

Bjork added that he would like to see committees hear from various education experts and advocates on funding, just as they did with consultants and oil companies for the PPT.

• Andrew Petty can be reached at andrew.petty@juneauempire.com.

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