At last: Gavel falls

300 bills passed, 625 bills died in 21st Legislature

Posted: Thursday, May 04, 2000

The 21st version of the Alaska Legislature coasted to a close Wednesday night.

All that was left to do was to polish off legislation, distribute thanks and wish retiring lawmakers well. At end-of-session press conferences, the Republican majority touted their accomplishments -- a trimmer budget, a long-term funding source for rural electricity subsidies and a $1.3 billion package of public works projects.

With the end of the Legislature, time ran out on some 625 pieces of legislation offered over the last two years. Lawmakers did approve another 300 or so bills and resolutions before the gavels fell on the Senate and then the House.

Senate President Drue Pearce, an Anchorage Republican, said the Legislature had done its business efficiently, bringing the session to an end nearly a week early.

``We stand before you adjourning the earliest the Legislature has adjourned since the 121-day session limit came into effect,'' she said. That limit took effect in 1985.

Democrats called the end of the session an empty one.

``I think it's a little early for people to start breaking their arms patting themselves on the back,'' said House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, an Anchorage Democrat.

Lawmakers did not address funding of state employee contracts, and before going onto the floor Wednesday night, legislators were served notice by Gov. Tony Knowles that a special session to address the contracts would begin at 4 p.m. today.

Pearce said there wasn't enough money to solve all the state's problems this year, but the majority had stuck to its budget priorities.

``Perhaps the budget isn't perfect,'' she said. ``We haven't built every new school that is needed. We haven't built every road that perhaps is needed. While we were able to get more child care money, we could have gotten more.

``But we weren't able to. But what we were able to do is find a team of people who would work together to find solutions.''

In a room down the hall from the majority's press conference, Democrats had one too.

Sen. Johnny Ellis, an Anchorage Democrat and minority leader in the Senate, said the Legislature did solve the annual funding crunch on rural electricity subsidies, which lowers power bills in the Bush. However, he said the GOP had failed to address critical state issues, such as regaining control of fish and game management from the federal government on most of the land within the state.

Subsistence management, a decade-long dilemma in Alaska, wasn't even brought up for debate, Ellis said. ``They didn't even make an attempt.''

Sen. Sean Parnell, an Anchorage Republican, said the GOP's budget proposal had addressed the party's top concerns -- children's programs, transportation, education and public safety.

``It's never been just about cutting the budget ... It's been about the people,'' he said.

While the $300 million bond package will send a lot of money to rural Alaska for schools, Sen. Georgianna Lincoln was angry that some urban school projects rejected by local voters were getting funding while roofs leaked and sewers overflowed at rural schools.

It wasn't fair to pass over projects that were priorities for the state Department of Education, said Lincoln, a Rampart Democrat.

Lawmakers had ``turned our backs on our children,'' she said. ``I don't want Alaskans to think all is well and good.''

Earlier -- shortly before the bond package passed on a final, 27-12 vote -- Rep. Richard Foster attacked rural legislators opposing the bond package. He's a Nome Democrat who's a member of the GOP-led majority.

He said that of the millions of dollars aimed at schools, his Bush district pulled down 30 percent of the money -- $60 million.

``I am not going to stand up here and complain about that,'' Foster said. ``I'd be ashamed to complain about that.''

Juneau received $5.5 million for classrooms at the University of Alaska Southeast and $1.3 million for deferred maintenance there, and $5.4 million for public school repairs and renovations. The latter depends on Juneau providing $2.3 million in local funds.



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