Lawmakers finally call halt to special session

Regulatory commission bill left hanging for June 24 session

Posted: Wednesday, May 22, 2002

Gov. Tony Knowles said today that the Legislature concluded a five-day special session Tuesday with an "embarrassment" - its failure to find compromise on a bill extending the Regulatory Commission of Alaska.

The Democratic governor also had a harsh assessment of the overall outcome of the 22nd two-year legislative session, saying Republicans failed to act on the two biggest issues, the $1 billion fiscal gap and subsistence, while indulging in budget trickery.

"A statesman thinks of the next generation; a politician thinks only of the next election," Knowles said. "It'll certainly be fresh in the public minds what they have done and what they haven't done this session."

House Speaker Brian Porter, in a press release Tuesday night, said the Republican majority had made significant progress.

"We have made special advances in the area of education, passing legislation that collectively represents the biggest investment in rural Alaska schools since Molly Hootch," said Porter, an Anchorage Republican, referring to a 1976 court case requiring construction of more Bush schools.

Noting that the House-passed bills for $930 million in new revenue were largely ignored by the Senate, Porter said: "The members of the House have much to be proud of in this session, not only for the work we began and saw through to completion, but also the efforts we began, that must be carried forward into the future before our efforts receive their final reward."

Knowles acknowledged the bipartisan effort in the House on the fiscal gap, but said minority Democrats deserve the credit for securing more than $100 million in general-obligation bonds for rural school construction. Democrats used their leverage - in the three-quarters vote to tap budget reserves - to push as far as possible down the list of school projects in unorganized areas. That initiative also was a priority of Senate President Rick Halford, a Chugiak Republican.

In the end, Republicans had a bicameral split among themselves. The House, which had passed a four-year RCA extension with only one dissenting vote, issued an ultimatum to the Senate to respond with an acceptable compromise by 5 p.m. Tuesday. When no agreement surfaced, the House gaveled out, followed soon after by the Senate.

Legislators will be back in a month, though, to deal with the issue they left hanging.

Knowles has called a special session for June 24 to take up the RCA issue. That overrode his previous plan for a special session to commence upon adjournment of the one that was called by lawmakers Thursday.

The RCA issue springs largely from competition in local phone markets between ACS, previously the monopoly provider in Juneau, and GCI, which entered the market here this year, thanks to rulings by the commission that were upheld on appeal.

ACS contends it's not being fairly compensated for use of its existing infrastructure. GCI officials say they're worried that with RCA in a year-long "wind down" set to begin July 1, there will be no one "to call balls and strikes" on how interconnections are proceeding.

House Finance Co-Chairman Eldon Mulder said the House majority's position is reverting to a four-year extension of RCA, rather than the one-year extension members offered as a compromise Monday night. He blamed Senate Judiciary Chairman Robin Taylor, a Wrangell Republican, for dragging out the special session.

"I think it's totally unreasonable for Sen. Taylor to try to defend one company, one entity, to hold up this process," said Mulder, an Anchorage Republican. "That's not excusable."

Taylor remained defiant Tuesday. He said he will ask the Judiciary Committee and Senate President Halford for subpoena powers to find out "the truth" about GCI.

He also has written to the U.S. Department of Justice requesting the agency to "expand its current investigation of General Communications Inc. to include the reasons for the tremendous political pressure being brought to bear on the Alaska state Legislature" to continue RCA.

Taylor says a Justice investigation of GCI activity in Oregon goes beyond a bankruptcy case in which GCI previously sought to purchase an undersea fiber optic system.

"How could it be an ongoing investigation if all those issues are concluded?" he said. "I was very specific when I asked them, 'Have you concluded this?' ... All I know is there is an ongoing investigation. ...

"And whatever their ongoing investigation is, I've asked that they expand it and take a look at the things being done in these halls."

Taylor said that ACS is not the only company concerned with the performance of the RCA. But many others are reluctant to speak while they have cases pending before the commission, he said.

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



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