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Impasse could last until the bitter end, some say

Posted: Sunday, May 22, 2005

Rep. David Guttenberg's cell phone rang as soon as his food arrived at a downtown Juneau restaurant last week, calling him away from his family and back to a Capitol floor session.

"It's hard to get out of the Capitol when you don't know when you're going to meet," the Fairbanks Democrat said.

This is the pace of the special session that started immediately after the regular session ended May 10.

The session could end this weekend, or, some say, slog all the way through its 30-day limit. Some legislators say they would like to leave as soon as possible so they can return to their families. But they are also vowing to stay until the bitter end if no compromise can be reached.

"People back home are telling me to stay and fight," said Rep. Nancy Dahlstrom, R-Eagle River.

Gov. Frank Murkowski said there's room for compromise, as long as the Legislature passes key bills on the agenda.

"What's most important is how we end this thing, how we come out of it," Murkowski said. "We are expected to govern. As governor, you've got to show results."

Still on the table are three bills splitting the Legislature. For weeks, lawmakers have not agreed on a bill that would overhaul the state's retirement systems for teachers and public employees (TRS and PERS).

Senate Bill 141 would create private accounts for new employees and give them lump sum amounts upon retiring, instead of monthly pension checks. Critics say it does nothing to pay for a $5.7 billion shortfall that cities, school districts and the state would have to pay in the future.

Also in contention is a plan to change workers' compensation regulations. The Senate and the governor want to appoint an appeals commission to speed up the court process and do away with a fund that helps workers injured for a second time. The House wants to take out the special panel and reinstate the injury fund.

The House rejected the last conference committee's proposal for workers' compensation with a vote of 20-20, and rejected the PERS and TRS rewrite with a vote of 22-18. A number of Republicans and Democrats are united to stop these two bills, or at least slow them down for more discussion next year.

"The session started out in January with people voting along party lines," said Rep. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage. "Now, many are voting their conscience."

The House and Senate have different versions of the state's construction budget: The Senate wants to wipe out the entire school deferred maintenance list and the House favors a cheaper budget that takes care of half of the school projects.

Sen. Gary Wilken, R-Fairbanks, is among those who are not optimistic about the session ending soon, due to the differences in opinions. "It's moving at a glacier's pace," he said.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are sitting in offices with no staff, blank walls and empty shelves that once held files now shipped back to their districts.

Many legislators have been kicked out of their residences after leases ran out and room was made for the tourist season. A few legislators are sleeping in their offices.

A common sight in the Capitol is Carolyn Guess, the 3-month-old daughter of Sen. Gretchen Guess, D-Anchorage. The mother often pushes her carriage through the halls.

Previously her husband watched the baby in Juneau, but he had to move home when the regular session ended.

"She has a lot of baby sitters now," said Guess, about the legislators who help out.

On Thursday and Friday, new conference committees were appointed with hopes of compromising again. There are no limits on how many conference committees can be formed, said House Rules Committee Chairman Norman Rokeberg, R-Anchorage.

"I think we'll be out of here in about a week," said House Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole.

• Andrew Petty can be reached at andrew.petty@juneauempire.com



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