Alaska lawmakers hit home stretch in final days of session

Legislators brace for late nights and last-minute changes

Posted: Monday, May 14, 2007

It's called "hurry up and wait," buzz words circulating the capitol halls Sunday to describe the final push for new laws - and with just three days left in the legislative session.

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It describes how low-profile bills get passed during floor sessions while the heavy-hitting items, such as the governor's gas line bill and retirement funding, get held for another day and possibly some leverage.

If all goes well, some lawmakers predict this could be among the most successful legislative sessions, possibly lifting the pall cast by the arrests of one current and two former lawmakers on bribery and extortion charges.

For now, lawmakers are bracing for late nights, last-minute bartering for bill amendments, floor debates and some high-level negotiating between the House and Senate leaders who can hold some major bills hostage before sending them to one another for final approval.

"You don't want to give up all the pieces," said Rep. Beth Kerttula, a Juneau Democrat in her ninth year who also watched her father, Jay, serve in the Legislature for more than 30 years.

"You want to keep some in reserve or someone will grab something of yours that's important," she said. "It's a chess match. It's kind of like the knight moves in on the bishop right before the bishop tries taking the queen."

There are no whispers of a special session, an overtime that still sends chills down some lawmakers spines when they recall three of them last year.

Major pieces of legislation - gas line bill; operating budget, ethics reform - are either awaiting the governor's signature or still needing a few tweaks

But the heavy-lifting is hardly over. The House Finance Committee was set to tackle the capital budget and all of its amendments to the Senate's version by late Sunday evening.

Before the meeting, co-chair Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, said some of the tougher fiscal decisions come down to these last hours.

"It's the last appropriation bill," Meyer said. "So if there is anything left that requires money, you need to do it in this vehicle."

Some members of the Legislature say the adjournment will ultimately punctuate a memorable session.

"We are on the cusp of one of the most productive legislative sessions in history," said Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage who was first elected in 1986. "What distinguishes this from other sessions is that we are dealing with some of the most difficult issues statewide."

Ellis said he believes the congenial atmosphere was generated from last November's election, and that is slowly leveling the playing field between Republicans and Democrats.

"It's encouraging to see people reach across party lines," said Ellis, a member of a majority coalition made up of nine Democrats and six Republicans.

"Between the voters mandate, the scandal and Gov. (Sarah) Palin being elected, people worked to be more cooperative and have the most productive legislative session in memory," he said.

Time will tell. For now, the race is on, and it's an accelerating pace some enjoy.

"As a kid I loved it," Kerttula said. "I still do. I like watching all the pieces start coming into place, watching who shows courage at the last minute and watching how people act.

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