FAIRBANKS - A House and Senate "working group" of legislators who met in private to discuss natural gas pipeline legislation was disbanded amid criticism the same day its existence was announced.
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House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez, said Monday morning the seven-member group was an attempt to iron out differences between House and Senate versions of Gov. Sarah Palin's Alaska Gasline Inducement Act. He said the group could help shape an acceptable version of the bill by the end of the regular legislative session May 16.
"We're trying to avoid a bloodbath on the floor," he said.
By Monday night, however, after taking flak over nonpublic meetings, group members disbanded.
Harris said the group had met previously by and was planning to meet with members of Palin's gas line team.
But the group quickly was criticized for meeting behind closed doors. Palin and her gas line team said they would not meet with the group privately.
"Our meetings to discuss the content of AGIA will be held in a public forum," said Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Irwin, using the acronym for the bill. "We committed to that in the very beginning."
According to the statement, Palin and her team have met with House and Senate leaders and with the co-chairs of the House and Senate Finance committees, but not with the "working group" Harris described.
The group had four House members and three senators: Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski; Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Fairbanks; Rep. Reggie Joule, D-Kotzebue; Rep. Ralph Samuels, R-Anchorage; Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka; Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel; and Sen. Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla.
Lawmakers not in the group criticized how it was formed and how it would be used.
Six were members of the two Finance committees, which are reviewing separate versions of Palin's bill. All but Joule were members of the House and Senate majorities.
Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, the only minority member on the Senate Finance Committee, said the working group members were largely those who were sympathetic to concerns expressed by the three major North Slope producers.
He said the process could result in a substitute version of Palin's bill being introduced at the last minute, leaving little room for public discussion.
Harris said the group was considering issues as substantial as whether "must have" requirements in the bill should be voluntary. Stedman described its work as "trying to sync up the two bills" and said major policy calls would be discussed in the public committee process.
"We want the system to work," he said.
By 6:45 p.m., the working group was no more. Harris said the decision was collective.
"We determined that it was probably not in the best interest of anybody to continue along that line," he said. He said the group's goal could be accomplished by the two finance committee co-chairs.
"Quite frankly this group was doing nothing more than trying to find out whether or not the administration was willing to be flexibly on some issues," he said. It would not make sense to offer amendments to the bill that the governor would not support, he said.
As for flexibility on the governor's gas pipeline bill, Revenue Commissioner Patrick Galvin said the gas line team has worked on language changes to eliminate concerns that he said stemmed from unintended interpretations of the bill. The major components of the bill, including the must-have requirements for potential pipeline builders and a $500 million incentive, were not part of the discussion, he said.
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