Gov. Tony Knowles has called a special session of the Legislature for May 21 to take up a cruise ship pollution bill that passed the House but stalled in a Senate committee.
Acting early this morning, minutes after the Legislature ostensibly had adjourned for the year, Knowles carried through on his standing threat to bring lawmakers back if there was not at least a Senate floor vote on the bill, which includes an unprecedented standard for the marine discharge of graywater and levies a $1 per passenger fee.
"This bill enjoys widespread support in the Legislature and certainly among Alaskans," Knowles said.
Although Knowles, minority Democrats and the Republican leadership of the House and Senate found some common ground on other issues in the final day of the session, the wrap-up itself was controversial.
Knowles, who normally waits until the day after adjournment to comment on the session, held a news conference that directly conflicted with the GOP-led majority news conference typically held immediately after the last gavel falls. The governor had an early flight this morning to see his daughter's college graduation in New York.
Republicans, stung by the anemic attendance at their event, physically barred reporters who showed up late.
"Actually, I'm insulted," said House Speaker Brian Porter, an Anchorage Republican. "We have, I think, this time put a package of improvements for this state together that perhaps is unmatched in the time I've been here, and our governor is upstairs taking credit for all of it."
Republicans also said Knowles should have known his key opponent on the cruise ship bill, Sen. John Cowdery of Anchorage, would be unable to make the May 21 special session because of his wife's impending heart surgery.
Gubernatorial spokesman Bob King said today that June would be too late because the cruise ship season is already under way and there's a need for regulation now.
"If the governor is going to call a special session when we're here, why didn't he simply extend the session," said Senate President Rick Halford, a Chugiak Republican.
The cruise ship issue, largely dormant for the first three months of this year's four-month session, came to dominate it at the end. After Knowles used his leverage, the North West CruiseShip Association agreed to support a formal role for the state in monitoring and regulating cruise ship air emissions, marine discharges and off-loading of solid waste.
But Cowdery, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said there were too many problems to be worked out concerning uniform state standards for wastewater treatment, phasing in the requirements for small U.S.-flagged cruise ships and retrofitting Alaska Marine Highway ferries.
Cowdery said Tuesday night that he demanded the cruise ship association make good on its pledge to enter into a legally binding contract with the state to fulfill the conditions of the bill.
House Finance Co-Chairman Eldon Mulder, an Anchorage Republican, noted a late budget amendment allows the Department of Environmental Conservation to receive $1 million for the purposes of pollution monitoring. The fee Knowles proposed would bring in about $700,000 a year.
But Knowles said a contract isn't sufficient on principle and wouldn't allow the state to seek criminal penalties for severe infractions.
"I think the public wants a law that requires certain standards to be set by regulation, that they be monitored, inspected and paid for," he said.
Before hearing the date Knowles decided on, Cowdery said "probably nothing" will happen in a special session.
There might also be a dispute about the location of the special session. Some Republican leaders were floating the idea Tuesday of taking a survey of legislators and getting the two-thirds vote to call their own special session in Anchorage, pre-empting the one called by Knowles.
"This is where the capital is, and this is where we have special sessions," Knowles said.
As for the regular session, there was agreement that some progress was made on education, although not nearly as much as Democrats wanted.
Knowles praised Democrats for "hardball" negotiating with Republicans that greatly expanded the list of school construction and maintenance projects. Democrats had threatened to withhold their crucial votes for tapping the state's Constitutional Budget Reserve, which led Republicans to consider bookkeeping methods they said could delay or negate the need for the three-quarters CBR vote. But a deal was worked out in the final three hours Tuesday.
A bonds package for school construction and major maintenance set the stage for the most contentious fight in the waning days of the session. Democrats wanted money for 50 projects while Senate Republicans opted for 11. The deadlock broke around 9 p.m. Tuesday when the GOP agreed to fund construction of four rural schools plus 32 major maintenance projects.
In the basic school operating formula, there was an increase of $14 million, including $547,000 a year for Juneau. Lawmakers also authorized more than $3 million statewide in property-tax relief and about $500,000 for Wrangell and Petersburg schools. Democrats had sought at least $20 million. They said with higher property tax revenues offsetting state aid, the Republicans' increase is actually marginal on a year-to-year basis. A task force put together by the governor had called for more than $40 million in new revenues to start making up for years of stagnant funding and erosion from inflation.
Mulder said there was the normal tension between Democrats and Republicans concerning the size of government.
"They wanted to spend more, and we wanted to spend less," he said. "I've got to give it to them, they're consistent, and they're consistently high, and it provided a tremendous problem for us."
Senate Republicans were reluctant to go along with additional spending, and some voted against the 2002 operating budget.
Republicans said the budget has $2.25 billion in state general funds, or $60 million less than Knowles' requested. While it was the first general fund increase in six years, Senate Finance Co-Chairman Dave Donley, an Anchorage Republican, said it was still below spending increases that would have been commensurate with inflation and population increases.
House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, an Anchorage Democrat, said that while "nothing really bad happened," that's a low standard by which to judge a legislative session.
"We still don't know what vision the majority had," Berkowitz said.
After months of consensus-building on alcohol initiatives, "We barely got to a 0.08," Berkowitz said, referring to the new blood-alcohol standard for drunken driving. Tougher DWI penalties and an increase in the alcohol excise tax fell by the wayside in the final week, due to individual committee chairmen who refused to move bills.
Bill McAllister can be reached at email@example.com. Empire reporter Kathy Dye contributed to this report.
© 2017. All Rights Reserved. | Contact Us