Identity theft bill opens view on fractured Senate

Posted: Thursday, May 11, 2006

Between an oil-tax rewrite and a capital budget worth billions, the Alaska Senate had a lot on its plate in the waning hours of the 24th Legislature.

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But it was a simple identity theft bill that caused tensions to really boil over.

Six hours before adjournment Tuesday, a tense standoff between the current Senate president and his predecessor signaled a split in the majority caucus - one that later showed up in the vote that squelched the net profits tax for oil companies.

The identity theft measure was straightforward enough. It required that Alaskans be informed if a security breach occurred that could have revealed their personal information. It also allowed citizens to control access to their credit reports, restricted Social Security Number disclosures and set up rules concerning the handling of public records.

The provisions were a bipartisan effort between Sen. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, and Sen. Gretchen Guess, D-Anchorage, and the bill moved handily through the committee process before stalling in the Senate Finance Committee.

Co-Chairwoman Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, said the measure would be burdensome on government agencies and industry.

But the House liked the bill. Republican leaders inserted the Senate provisions into a separate bill on workers' compensation records, which the House unanimously passed.

That brought the measure back to the Senate floor for a concurrence vote, bypassing Green's committee.

The stage was set for the strangely formal deadlock between Therriault and current Senate President Ben Stevens, R-Anchorage.

Six times, Therriault made a motion for the bill to be read on the floor. Six times, Stevens said the bill was not in possession of the Senate, although Therriault said it had been personally escorted from the House by his staff member.

When Therriault challenged the ruling, the Senate backed him on a 13-7 vote. Stevens made one last protest then the secretary of the Senate read the bill across.

Stevens assigned the bill to three committees, which were no longer meeting.

Since all bills that did not pass died at midnight, Stevens' action effectively killed the bill.

The vote, however, was a harbinger of things to come. Three of the same Republicans later sided with Therriault on the 10-10 vote that defeated the oil production tax.

Majority members were tightlipped over whether a power struggle was under way in the Republican caucus as they moved into a special session to consider a gas pipeline.

Therriault said the struggle over the bill was just that: a disagreement over a policy issue.

"There was no hidden agenda. It was just about getting a piece of legislation that had widespread support in the Legislature and certainly widespread support in the public," he said.

Stevens said Therriault's attempt to move his bill was a disappointment.

"As the Senate president, it's part of the role of the office to uphold the conduct of how business is taking place," he said.

House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez, said individual legislators sometimes take matters in their own hands when they feel a bill is important.

"And sometimes the majority body think they should be allowed to do that," he said. "It's not always pretty but it's the way it has been working for many, many years," he said.

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