Legislative leaders took the first tentative step Wednesday toward ending the session as House GOP leaders met with minority Democrats to forge a compromise that would allow the Legislature to adjourn in a week - on time.
House Majority Leader John Coghill, a North Pole Republican, said Democrats were invited to begin negotiations on what issues will need to be resolved to win minority support for a budget-balancing three-fourths vote.
"It really was an extension of good will, trying to figure out how do we close out the session in an orderly fashion," Coghill said.
House Speaker Pete Kott, an Eagle River Republican, joined Coghill in speaking with Democrats during a caucus in the Capitol.
Senate President Gene Therriault, a North Pole Republican, said similar meetings will happen there with minority Democrats.
As the final days of the session tick down, relations with minority lawmakers take on greater importance. Republicans control both houses of the Legislature and can pass most legislation along party lines.
But Alaska has a chronic budget shortfall that requires lawmakers also vote to spend from the state's Constitutional Budget Reserve to balance its books. That requires a three-fourths vote which can't be achieved without Democratic support.
Gov. Frank Murkowski, a Republican, has pushed an ambitious agenda in his first year in office, but many of his proposals have rankled Democrats.
At the same time, Democrats fear his line-item veto pen could cancel out any deal negotiated with GOP leaders in the Legislature. House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, an Anchorage Democrat, was mindful of that following Wednesday's caucus meeting.
Coghill said GOP leaders have offered to take any negotiated deal with Democrats to Murkowski to close out the session.
"I'm happy to work with them, but I am not going to go through a negotiation with the House and then be subjected to a gubernatorial veto," Berkowitz said.
Lawmakers have just seven days to approve a fiscal 2004 spending plan and consider a long list of bills Murkowski wants passed. With time running out, the administration is scurrying to get its proposals through the Legislature.
Lawmakers are also under the gun to approve a budget that spends less and draws no more than $400 million from the state's budget reserve. Murkowski hasn't said so, but GOP lawmakers are also mindful of his line-item veto.
"He's certainly not tipping his hand to us at this point," Therriault said.
"He keeps stressing his (lower budget) targets. And so we sort of read things into that, but exactly what might be on the chopping block, he's not told us specifically," Therriault said.
Minority Democrats have been able to soften some of the GOP budget cuts in past years through negotiations aimed at winning their support to spend from the reserve account.
Democrats have said they plan to use their leverage this year to demand protection for permanent fund dividends by putting it in the constitution. Republicans have said they cannot go that far.
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