Lawmakers extend session

Extension allows more time for fiscal compromise

Posted: Wednesday, May 15, 2002

After Rep. Gretchen Guess' fiance was introduced during a House floor session Tuesday, Speaker Brian Porter quipped: "Well, something significant is going to happen today, anyway."

Many hours later, with significant work undone, the Legislature took the apparently unprecedented step of voting by a two-thirds margin to extend the regular session two days.

The Senate, which did little business in public on what was supposed to be the last day of the session, acted on the extension at 11:56 p.m. - just four minutes before the constitutionally mandated adjournment, which would have killed all pending legislation.

All members of the Democratic minority in both chambers voted against the extension. Sen. Lyman Hoffman of Bethel said it would be more efficient to let Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles call a special session on a limited agenda of bills.

Senate Finance Co-Chairman Pete Kelly, a Fairbanks Republican, blamed the impasse on the Democrats, who he said presented ever-changing demands. Democratic votes are needed to tap reserves necessary for balancing the budget, a fact that angers Republicans, who say it's the result of a bad court decision.

"Our disagreement is money, money, money," Kelly said. "It was like, here we are, we're beginning to come down to where the paths meet, and just before they meet, they divert."

Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis said Kelly is "not the easiest person to communicate with."

"We've been speaking English the whole session about what our end-of-session priorities are," Ellis said, mentioning $35 million in more education funding, rural school construction, power cost subsidies for rural communities, and a veterans package.

"His basic attitude is, 'We're being really generous to you by giving you some rural schools, so you should be really grateful and forget about (power cost equalization) and the school foundation formula,' " said Ellis, an Anchorage Democrat.

In the meantime:

• The House sent to the governor bills raising the alcohol excise tax and restricting Medicaid abortions.

Knowles favored an even larger alcohol hike, suggesting that he's likely to sign that bill. But the governor is pro-choice, and his spokesman has said tightening the definition of "medically necessary" abortions is wrong.

• Republicans for a second time blocked confirmation votes for 13 gubernatorial appointees.

"I think a lame duck governor is going to need to be very careful who he or she names to boards and commissions," said Senate Majority Leader Loren Leman, an Anchorage Republican.

Leman and other Republicans have not said why they opposed some or all of the would-be appointees. Asked if the public deserves an explanation of why a vote couldn't be taken, Leman refused to expand upon his answer.

• The Legislature voted along party lines to approve the 2003 operating budget of $2.3 billion, although the three-quarters vote on using reserves to make it balance is still pending.

• Two veteran Republican lawmakers, Senate President Rick Halford of Chugiak and Juneau Rep. Bill Hudson, announced they would not run for re-election.

Halford, who got a surprise visit from his family, including his 10-day-old youngest son, told colleagues: "Little people make us realize how important some things are, and how unimportant other things are."

A special session on subsistence that Knowles said he would call for today has been postponed, apparently until Friday. There also was the possibility that the governor would force extra innings on veterans issues and the confirmations, although the latter would be legally dubious.

Issues that have been left unresolved include:

• An increase in the minimum wage, and a proposed discount from the minimum wage for room and board provided by fish processing companies at remote sites.

• Proposed constitutional amendments to cap state spending, allow legislatively imposed hiring freezes, require the administration to set budget priorities, and lower the vote necessary to access budget reserves.

• "The Alaska Fair Tax," the income tax proposal based upon sales tax rates, which would raise $255 million toward closing the $1 billion fiscal gap projected for 2004.

• A percent-of-market-value bill for the permanent fund, basing payouts on 5 percent of the five-year rolling average market value, and dividing the money 50-50 between dividends and government. It would raise about $657 million toward filling the fiscal gap in 2004.

• A "municipal dividend" that would replace about $51 million in general fund spending on local government services with $59 million in permanent fund earnings.

The income tax proposal is pending on the Senate floor, but the permanent fund bills have not moved from committees. Halford said he favors floor votes on all the remaining House-passed bills for new revenue, which are expected to be defeated.

Meanwhile, the House has not acted on the constitutional amendments, which all have passed the Senate.

Bonding measures for maintenance and construction projects throughout the state still await approval from the Senate, and a $1 billion-plus capital budget, Senate Bill 247, has yet to gain a House vote.

A debt-reimbursement formula being pushed by minority Democrats to pay for schools in rural areas has caused friction with Republicans.

Bill McAllister can be reached at Empire staff writer Timothy Inklebarger contributed to this article.

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