Difficult special session goes on

Some blame their peers for arrogant power plays, others cite stubbornness

Posted: Sunday, May 22, 2005

An Alaska legislative session that began with the possibility of easy budget decisions has dragged on in testy showdowns, with lingering disagreement on funding state government.

Even while newly flush with North Slope oil cash this year, lawmakers have struggled through a session and into a special session debating the state's basic needs.

"I think we've tested the limits of our institution," House Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, said Friday.

Increasingly anxious to end their long stay in the State Capitol, Coghill and other legislators reflected last week on the events and decisions that have delayed funding for schools and prompted a protracted special session filled with the governor's 11 "must-pass" bills.

Some blamed their peers of arrogant power plays to get votes on a few key bills. Others cited stubbornness. Others blamed excessive meddling by powerful special interests.

"This is the strangest session I've spent," said Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau. "It begins with everyone saying 'the stars are aligned' and 'we've got money and let's get it out to the school districts.'

"Now, maybe it's better to say that the black holes are aligned," Elton said.

Funding for schools and many other projects that rely on state money was not allocated in the 121 days of the regular session and still hasn't been on Friday, the 10th day of the special session.

"It's just like village politics," said freshman Rep. Woody Salmon, D-Beaver.

"I came down here with the idea that there is a division between Democrats and Republicans. But then I found out that, on the really strong issues, it's really right down the middle (of the House body)," Salmon said.

House Republicans expressed some optimism Friday that the logjam would be broken soon. "We're trying to push things over the last goal line," Coghill said.

Still, on Friday night, legislators remained bogged down on the two most controversial bills to eliminate the state's traditional "defined-benefit" pension for state employees and make drastic revisions to workers' compensation law.

In the last few weeks, the talk in the hallways of the Capitol got ugly as legislators butted heads over the two big bills.

In a May 15 memorandum, Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, pleaded with his fellow Republicans to "stop throwing rhetorical hand grenades."

He also bemoaned the aborting of the oft-cited "marvelous alignment of the stars" granted by the voters of Alaska to the party, which won the majority of legislative seats in 2004.

"We have all made mistakes and said things that were not helpful," Dyson said.

He also chided his colleagues for breaking President Ronald Reagan's 11th commandment: "Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican."

But a couple days later, legislators were still throwing out verbal volleys at each other and lobbyists plying the hallways.

In one Thursday incident, Senate President Ben Stevens, R-Anchorage, accused the House leadership of being controlled by "union thugs."

Tempers seemed to have reached their climactic peak on Thursday.

Though not every legislator agreed with her assessment, Sen. Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, said Friday, "I think things are easing up."

"In two months, I will have to think hard to remember what happened in this building," Green added. "I think the rest of Alaska will forget, too."

Not everyone felt that power brokers in the State Capitol should get off the hook so easily.

A few days ago, Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, told the Anchorage Daily News that he was embarrassed to be a part of the legislative process this year.

Hawker later declined through an aide to be interviewed for this story.

Democrats and House Republicans continue to complain about the governor's and the Senate majority's hard-line stance on the pension and workers' compensation bills, and decision to hook the prior issue to education funding.

"(Senate leaders) put a premium on moving in lock step," House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz said.

Midway through the regular session, when the Senate linked education funding to the bill changing the state's pension system for public employees, "it showed the arrogance of Senate Republicans and that they were more inclined to bully rather than persuade," Berkowitz said.

"I haven't been bullied," responded Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, R-Juneau, who attempted to insert key revisions to the retirement bill. "My communications have all be cordial."

Green, the Wasilla Republican, bristles at criticism of the Senate majority's decision to link the two issues.

She said state employees are on record against any dipping into their wallets to help fix the future multi-billion-dollar shortfall in the state's pension plans.

That's the link that Green said angers her. "Don't come to us (for funds) if you don't support reform," Green said.

Stevens has come under heavy criticism from Democrats for his hard line on certain bills and his decision to hold back spending bills until those were passed.

Coghill said that strong personalities in the Senate left a bad taste in the mouth of some House members.

Sen. Ralph Seekins, R-Fairbanks, said it's a sign of frustration when people start blaming each other's personalities.

"This is a process. I plan on going hunting in September but before that I don't know," Seekins said. "We have some major issues we need to address."

In the final analysis, many in the Capitol agreed that there was nothing really unusual about the protracted and volatile nature of the 24th session and its special session.

According to Weyhrauch, the only real problem with the gathering is that it has gone on too long.

"It would have been nice to adjourn earlier," he said.

Minority press officer Mike Doogan had his first brush with the Legislature as a page in the 1964 earthquake special session, which lasted three days.

"This isn't unusual to me," Doogan said.

"I was involved in a 160 day-long session. That was before session limits. Those sessions often unfolded like this. What caused it was one powerful person, usually in the Senate, wanted to get what they wanted and was willing to hold up everything else to do it."

The longest session in Alaska legislative history occurred in 1981 and lasted 164 days, adjourning on June 24.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at elizabeth.bluemink@juneauempire.com.

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