Lawmakers scram as session ends

Legislature may revisit some special session bills after reconvening next year

Posted: Thursday, May 26, 2005

After two weeks of deadlock and closed-door meetings, the Alaska Legislature's special session concluded Wednesday.

The Senate rifled through its remaining bills with no debate before lunch as some headed straight to the airport for afternoon flights. The House gaveled out Tuesday night.

The bills included a $70 million increase to the state's per-student allocation, and the public works budget with about $750 million of state funds being spent for construction projects.

After the House approved a new retirement plan for future state employees Monday, it freed up the capital budget and other bills to come to the floors for votes. In the final days, the chambers also approved a $6.5 billion operating budget and a state virology lab in Fairbanks.

Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, said she had worked 21 days without a break. Others were inconvenienced by having to move out of their temporary homes and sleep in their offices.

With an oil revenue surplus of several hundred million dollars, the session was unlike others, said House Finance Chairman Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage.

"I think it would have been easier if we didn't have so much money," he joked. "This year it was so big I think people were saying, 'Well he got that preschool, I want that.'"

Approved school maintenance and road construction for natural resource projects will create jobs. "We just hope it's not too much," Meyer said.

A number of critics, including labor unions, say if these projects happen at once, the economy will overheat in those areas.

In closing comments, legislators spoke out on the so-called "bullying" that went on behind the scenes to get votes on key bills.

House minority members said Democrats were approached by Republicans to vote for their bills or else have their construction projects in their districts taken out of the capital budget.

"I've seen photographs of sharks in a feeding frenzy, and that kind of reminds me of what the Senate was like this year ... willing to chew up anyone who got in their way," said House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage.

Senate President Ben Stevens, R-Anchorage, would not comment on the accusations of Senate Republicans bullying lawmakers, but rather said it was not a desperate attempt to get votes.

"This is the culmination of not six weeks of bullying; it's the culmination of three years of trying to find a solution of the first step," Stevens said.

Speaker of the House John Harris, R-Valdez, said the Senate was holding the capital budget "hostage" from the House until there were enough votes to pass the retirement bill. Harris said earlier that a deal was made with the Senate: They would vote on Senate Bill 141 and a workers' compensation overhaul if the Senate agreed to pass the House's version of the budget.

"They used techniques they had available to them, but we have our own techniques we could have used ourselves," Harris said.

The speaker said the governor shares responsibility for headaches caused by the extended session for adding bills to the agenda.

"It takes three to tango," he said.

Harris was instrumental in breaking the logjam of the special session as he cast a "yea" vote on the retirement bill against his wishes but for his party.

Stevens said he was prepared to battle it out for the full 30 days of the special session if necessary.

"This is not a dead issue," said Harris, as many lawmakers plan to retool the retirement plan and workers compensation bill next year with additional legislation.

Becky Hultberg, spokeswoman for Gov. Frank Murkowski, said at this point the reform bills are a "framework." Businesses in Alaska pay the second-highest insurance rates for workers' compensation.

"It's better than doing nothing at all," she said.

But Alaska Division of Workers Compensation director Paul Lisankie said he could not guarantee the bill will lower insurance rates anytime soon.

Hultberg said another special session will occur late this summer after negotiations for developing a natural gas pipeline in the North Slope. Lawmakers will amend and approve the contracts.

House Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, said the summer session would be a good time for Republicans to mend their fences after surviving weeks of disputes.

"A conversation has to happen along the way," Coghill said. "So if we have a special session, that's going to be a very good time to put some things behind us."

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



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