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Legislature into extra innings

Governor calls special session for priority bills, construction budget

Posted: Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Suspicions were confirmed Monday when Gov. Frank Murkowski announced that this year's Alaska Legislature is headed for extra innings.

The regular session ends at midnight tonight but the governor called for a special session to start Wednesday so lawmakers would have more time to negotiate the state's construction budget and a handful of controversial bills.

"This isn't a spur-of-the-moment decision," Murkowski said. "We discussed it over granola and yogurt this morning."

House and Senate leaders said the decision was mutual.

Nervousness over finishing legislative business in time began over the weekend as the Alaska House and Senate concentrated on passing a retirement system for future employees. The conference committee failed Monday to reach a compromise and the chambers will need more time to form a new panel for debate.

Besides the plan to create private retirement accounts for another generation of public employees, the governor also asked the Legislature to pass a worker's compensation reform.

By law, the special session can last up to 30 days. Usually, the request is made in the summer.

Bills such as Senate Bill 130, the workers' compensation reform, were introduced earlier in the session but did not receive attention until last week.

House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage, blames the majority for not finishing on time.

"It's about stubbornness and wanting to win, instead of listening and leading," Berkowitz said.

Repeatedly, the Senate suspended meetings and specifically did not hear House bills in response to the House delaying and severely altering the retirement reform bill, or Senate Bill 141.

In March, the Senate made a school funding bill contingent on passing the retirement plan. During a conference committee last month, House leaders rejected those terms.

The workers' compensation rewrite has been stalled in the House as one committee spent several weeks working with labor unions and an ad hoc panel to fix the bill.

"It's just a complicated issue," said Rep. Pete Kott, R-Eagle River. The bill awaits a hearing from a conference committee.

House Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, said the House is holding its version of the capital budget until it can strike more deals with the Senate on the operating budget. Lawmakers are planning to wipe out the school deferred maintenance list with the construction project bill.

Meanwhile, some lawmakers say that staying in Juneau for at least an extra week is taxing on their personal lives. Many legislators and staff members have not taken a day off during the past two weeks.

Rep. Jim Holm, R-Fairbanks, owns a greenhouse business that needs attending during its spring peak season.

"It makes it hard on those of us who live 1,200 miles away," Holm said.

Sen. Ralph Seekins, R-Fairbanks, said he hopes to adjourn before Saturday so he can see his son-in-law graduate from college on Sunday. But he changed his plane reservations for Thursday in anticipation of the session extending.

Lawmakers said they are less likely to use the time remaining in the regular session for other bills that have not moved far enough to go to the House and Senate floors for a final vote. A bill legalizing card rooms in Alaska that the House passed last week still must be heard in the Senate Finance Committee and then go to the floor for a vote.

Another bill aimed at criminalizing marijuana is still in the Senate awaiting votes and has not been heard in the House.

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



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