Lawmakers focus on 3 bills

Posted: Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Alaska lawmakers spent much of the last day of the regular legislative session behind closed doors, strategizing on the three bills they'll take into a special session beginning today.

Nearly a third of the legislators are on conference committees designed to negotiate differences in the House and Senate versions of major bills.

"There's a lot of discussions going on to try to get to the middle," said Sen. Gary Wilken, R-Fairbanks, who is on the panel to iron out Senate Bill 141, a proposal to rewrite the state's retirement system.

A panel for workers' compensation reform thumbed through 70 points of contention and skipped over debating the most heated ones while concentrating on getting the minor disagreements out of the way.

The workers' compensation bill, the retirement system overhaul and the capital budget are the three pieces of legislation that Gov. Frank Murkowski reserved for a special session he called Monday. The regular session of 121 days ended at midnight on Tuesday.

The House met briefly Tuesday morning to pass a few bills, albeit shorthanded; the Senate did not meet until after dinner. The House reconvened in the evening as well.

Lawmakers not involved in negotiations found time to pack boxes and even play basketball.

"It's a lot of 'hurry up and waiting,'" said Rep. Ralph Samuels, R-Anchorage, who took a stroll by the downtown waterfront.

"I think it's revealing that the Republicans and (Gov.) Frank Murkowski don't know what they want, they don't really have an agreement, and they don't know how to get there," said House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage.

"Combined with some really bad ideas," he said.

A conference committee retooling the state's retirement system failed the first time around, due to a stalemate on whether to make the new plan optional for new employees.

Another panel was named Monday night, which spent most of Tuesday discussing among themselves and with the administration behind the scenes about the bill. A televised meeting was continuously delayed Tuesday until the group finally decided to postpone the open conference until today.

"I think tomorrow will be public and we'll just find out where everyone is at," Wilken said.

The Senate passed a $700 million budget for the state's road, building and maintenance project list Monday night, but they have not sent the bill over to the House for review. The House has their own version of the capital budget in a finance committee but has not discussed it yet.

Lawmakers did not have time to pass several bills that gained momentum earlier in the session. The governor put forth a proposal that could overturn a state court ruling to criminalize marijuana. The bill was heard in committees but never reached the floors for a vote.

Also, a bill that would legalize card rooms passed in the House but stalled in Senate committees.

The Senate periodically canceled committee meetings and floor sessions last month and last week in response to the House delaying and temporarily rejecting the new retirement system.

During the special session, lawmakers may only discuss the bills on the agenda, which are SB 130, SB 141 and SB 46: workers' comp, the retirement plan and the capital budget.

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



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