Legislature set for last-minute rush

Surprises possible as session approaches Tuesday adjournment

Posted: Sunday, May 06, 2001

With the Alaska Legislature scheduled for adjournment Tuesday, a logjam of legislation is expected to break any time.

Major funding and policy decisions are still pending, and Capitol veterans know to expect the unexpected during the horse-trading of the final few days.

"It's amazing how things that look dead can be resurrected at the end of the session," said Clark Gruening, lobbyist for the city of Juneau and chairman of the Alaska Permanent Fund trustees.

"The good news is, everything's still in play," another lobbyist was heard saying in the halls Saturday. "The bad news is, everything's still in play."

The list of at least critically-wounded proposals includes an increase in the minimum wage, an alcohol tax increase, a veterans' preference in the Pioneers Homes, termination of state aid to the North Slope Borough School District, a capital or legislative move from Juneau, and a transportation package with one more fast ferry for Southeast.

Cruise ships not in yet

A big shoe that hadn't dropped by mid-evening Saturday was Senate action on a landmark bill for cruise ship pollution regulation, already passed by the House.

The Senate on Friday approved 20-0 a resolution that would allow a title change in the bill. Senate President Rick Halford, a Chugiak Republican, is known to favor a $50 head tax on cruise passengers, something that could be added with the title change. But there also was speculation about other legislation to which a cruise ship head tax could be added.

A Senate Transportation Committee hearing on the cruise ship bill was scheduled for Saturday evening. But Chairman John Cowdery, an Anchorage Republican, said he wasn't feeling any pressure to get the bill passed, even though Gov. Tony Knowles has said it's a "must-have" bill for which he might call a special session.

The already charged issue grew more intense Friday with the filing of an ethics complaint against Rep. Eldon Mulder, an Anchorage Republican who took control of cruise ship legislation. The Alaska Public Interest Research Group contends Mulder has a personal financial interest in the outcome because his wife works for a top cruise industry lobbyist. Mulder has declared his wife's employment "irrelevant."

Abortion and cancer

Meanwhile, the House-Senate conference committee on an operating budget for Fiscal Year 2002 has been deadlocked over an abortion-related provision added by the Senate that would scuttle the entire health and social services budget if a court invalidates the Legislature's restrictions on abortions eligible for reimbursement. Mulder, co-chairman of the House Finance Committee, said he expects "a more palatable" version of that section to be unveiled today.

But legislation has been introduced to define the constitutional right to privacy, which a Superior Court judge cited in ruling that the Legislature must pay for elective abortions through the Medicaid program. A bill saying that privacy does not carry with it the right to government money was approved by the House Judiciary Committee on Saturday by a 5-1 vote.

"Zip your lip," Judiciary Chairman Norm Rokeberg, an Anchorage Republican, told House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, an Anchorage Democrat, at one point during an energetic, philosophical debate about separation of powers and other weighty matters.

The Senate saw some sparks early Saturday evening over a bill to extend Medicaid coverage to uninsured women with breast and cervical cancer. The inclusion of a requirement for a report on behavioral factors that might cause cancer prompted some tense moments, on- and off-microphone. Party-line votes preserved the reporting requirement, although the bill finally passed unanimously.

Alcohol and tobacco

House and Senate Republican majorities have said tougher alcohol laws were a top priority this year, but so far only non-binding resolutions have been passed.

The most comprehensive alcohol bill, HB 4, passed the House and awaits action in the Senate Judiciary Committee. That bill includes much stiffer penalties for drunken drivers and lowers the legal blood alcohol level for drivers from 0.10 to 0.08, while another sets up "therapeutic courts" for chronic offenders.

Tobacco also has been a lightning-rod issue with the decision by a Senate committee not to put any money from a tobacco lawsuit settlement into an account to fund tobacco prevention and cessation programs.

Gas line unresolved

Although a hot topic when the Legislature convened Jan. 8, the issue of a natural gas pipeline has grown less fevered.

A bill that would ban the so-called over-the-top route through the Beaufort Sea has reached Knowles' desk.

Another bill pending would authorize a study of whether the state should own part of the pipeline. Rep. Scott Ogan, a Palmer Republican who chairs the House Special Committee on Oil and Gas, said he hopes to hear from the North Slope producers no later than March 2002 on whether they propose an all-Alaska liquefied natural gas project or a pipeline to the Lower 48. Otherwise, legislators might start thinking seriously about taxing the gas in the ground, he said. "It's good that it's one of the arrows in our quiver."

Long-range budgeting

Other proposals for more state revenue have been discussed fitfully.

 

A new Fiscal Policy Caucus of moderate Republicans and Democrats was formed to research potential elements of a long-term plan for bringing recurring revenues and ongoing appropriations into balance.

But the group, despite members' impatience with the Republican leadership of the Legislature, has not yet used its leverage. Members split on a plan to put more oil revenue into the general fund rather than the permanent fund, a bill that passed the House but appears to be languishing in the Senate. And the bipartisan caucus ultimately didn't rally behind Anchorage Republican Rep. Lisa Murkowski's bill to increase the excise tax on alcohol by 300 percent, which stalled due to the opposition of one committee co-chairman.

Rep. Peggy Wilson, a Wrangell Republican, said the Fiscal Policy Caucus will make a major announcement in the next few days. One of the co-chairs, Juneau Republican Rep. Bill Hudson, has spoken of a major effort during the interim to get public comment and fashion elements of a plan for action in the 2002 session.

In general, senators are less amenable to new revenue streams. Senate Finance Co-Chairman Dave Donley, an Anchorage Republican, won Senate approval Saturday of proposed constitutional amendments to cap general fund spending and to make it easier to access the Constitutional Budget Reserve, both of which were approved on 14-6 party-line votes.

If passed by the House, those measures would go on the 2002 general election ballot.

Donley wants to allow a simple majority vote to tap the CBR, which has been used to plug budget gaps. That would cut out minority Democrats, who exercise their only leverage of the session when they supply the additional votes necessary to get three-fourths approval for using the CBR.

Education issues

This year, education funding is the main demand of Democrats, who must supply at least two votes in the House and one in the Senate for a budget to pass. They want at least $20 million more in the basic per-student aid formula, a proposal pending in the House Rules Committee, and more school construction and maintenance money than Republicans have put on the table so far.

A foundation aid bill passed by the Senate would increase the formula by $70 per student, or $14 million statewide. SB 174 now heads to the House, where Berkowitz on Saturday described it as "table scraps."

A major maintenance project at Juneau-Douglas High School is fully funded in the Senate school construction proposal at $9 million, although Gruening, Juneau's lobbyist, didn't think the funding level was secure. The House figure is $7 million. A new high school isn't in the works this year, but Hudson said there's a chance for it in 2002.

Wilson won House passage of a bill to study differences among school districts in the cost of doing business. Her districts are unfairly shortchanged under the current formula, she said. The bill wasn't moving in the Senate as of Friday, but she remained confident.

Knowles asked the Legislature to delay the effective date of the high school exit exam until 2006, but the Senate agreed only to postpone it until 2004. The House has yet to act.

After a long debate the House voted 40-0 to retain the state requirement for gifted and talented education.

Bill McAllister can be reached at billm@juneauempire.com. Kathy Dye can be reached at kdye@juneauempire.com.



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