Gas-line bill dead for now

Senate moves slowly on fiscal gap

Posted: Sunday, May 12, 2002

A bill that would have provided $600 million in property-tax breaks for builders of a gas pipeline will not make it through the Legislature this session.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Pete Kott, an Eagle River Republican, said Saturday evening there is not enough time left to work out final details of a compromise on the bill.

With Kott attending, Gov. Tony Knowles and North Slope oil producers had negotiated until about 11 p.m. Friday, resumed early Saturday morning and ended by 9 p.m.

"Obviously, there's not enough time within this regular session in order to pass a bill," said Knowles spokesman Bob King. "The governor feels a lot of progress was made that can be picked up later."

King said there is no plan now for a special session on the topic.

Knowles backed a payback provision that would kick in during times of high natural gas prices, while key House Republicans have said that might effectively kill the project. Other outstanding issues included labor terms during pipeline construction.

Meanwhile, most of the other major issues of the legislative session, including a long-range fiscal plan and annual operating budget, remained unresolved.

Typically, major legislation is tied together in the last few days through sometimes intricate compromises between majority Republicans and minority Democrats, between the House and the Senate, and between the administration and the Legislature generally.

Knowles already has called a special session on subsistence for Wednesday, and there has been speculation about a second special session on the Regulatory Commission of Alaska, various initiatives for veterans, or the fiscal gap.

The biggest issue facing state government, the $1 billion fiscal gap projected for 2004, was largely off-stage Saturday.

The Senate has yet to act on four major revenue bills passed by the House that would raise about $932 million annually when fully enacted. Only the smallest of the four, an increase in the alcohol excise tax raising about $20 million, is expected to have any chance. But Senate President Rick Halford says he wants to see floor votes on all the bills.

On a 13-7 vote, the Senate passed a bill establishing a "Let Me Help Account" in the state general fund for voluntary donations toward closing the fiscal gap.

"This is the best way I can think of to increase revenues for the state of Alaska," said Sen. Robin Taylor, a Wrangell Republican.

But it seems to be "a rhetorical point" only, said Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis, an Anchorage Democrat. "I don't think it advances the debate forward in a very constructive way."

A House-Senate conference committee has been working on the 2003 budget. At about $2.3 billion, the state general fund will be slightly lower than in the current fiscal year.

Republican budget-writers are making cuts in state services to accommodate increases in formula-driven programs. Given the fiscal gap, they have portrayed Knowles as irresponsible for proposing a spending increase of about $200 million.

But the administration has been sharply critical of the cuts and of the "bifurcation" of the budget, which would limit certain spending in the first six months of the fiscal year to half of the annual appropriation. That's a slap at Knowles, suggesting that because he's leaving office in December he can't be trusted not to overspend.

In the latest skirmish, King, press secretary for Knowles, objected Saturday to what he said is disingenuous "intent language" in the pending budget, saying that the Legislature wants state parks to stay open even while that line item is being cut $1 million.

"What are they saying?" King asked. "You can save $1 million by not pumping out the toilets in the parks?"

Possible 'move' bill on the move

Juneau's delegation and lobbyists are keeping an eye on House Bill 533 and Senate Bill 368, which would allow the Alaska Housing Finance Corp. to back a $50 million office building in Anchorage to house various government entities.

Supporters, including Rep. Joe Green, an Anchorage Republican who has sponsored bills to move legislative sessions, say it isn't intended to undermine Juneau's status as the capital.

"I'm always concerned when somebody has a bright idea with a week left in the session," said Sen. Kim Elton, a Juneau Democrat.

Elton said he'll take sponsors at their word that the legislation isn't meant to boost the pending ballot initiative on moving legislative sessions to Anchorage or the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. But that doesn't mean it can't be used that way in the upcoming campaign, he said.

"What concerns me is that it doesn't very specifically state that it is not the intent" to have legislative sessions in the building, said Rep. Bill Hudson, a Juneau Republican. "I've indicated all along that I'm not adverse to combining office spaces that we currently lease in the Anchorage area to one state-owned or maybe more favorably leased facility. I don't want anything out there that interrupts the public vote that is coming up in November. I'd like to have that behind us, and then we'll decide what to do (about office space)."

The House State Affairs Committee approved the bill Thursday, and it was awaiting action in the finance committees of both houses Saturday.

On a separate bill, the Senate voted 14-5 against an amendment offered by Nikiski Republican Jerry Ward to hold legislative sessions in the Robert B. Atwood Building in Anchorage in 2003-04.

Alaska history bill is history

The Legislature has approved a bill aimed at stopping parents from using first-grade classrooms as day care centers for 6-year-olds, forcing them to enroll their children rather than have them attend sporadically.

A House-Senate conference committee stripped out a House-passed amendment that would have made the teaching of state history compulsory in high schools statewide.

"I hope it's not because there is a Native component to the history requirement," said Rep. Eric Croft, an Anchorage Democrat.

Rep. Gary Stevens, a Kodiak Republican who was on the conference committee, said senators clearly would have let the whole bill die rather than accept the history requirement.

Sen. Gene Therriault, a North Pole Republican who sponsored the school attendance bill, said that model Alaska history curriculum is being developed, and school districts have the authority to mandate such courses.

The House approved the bill by 22-16 and the Senate by 12-8.

Bill McAllister can be reached at billm@juneauempire.com.



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