Session to be held in Anchorage

Legislators plan to address funding for senior benefits

Posted: Sunday, June 03, 2007

Web posted

The Alaska Legislature has decided to call itself into special session in Anchorage to keep the SeniorCare program going.

The lawmakers convene June 26.

Holding a legislative session outside the capital raised immediate concerns among Juneau leaders, who worried that it could renew efforts to move the capital to the larger city.

"Obviously, it raises a great deal of concern," said Mayor Bruce Botelho.

"The essential aspect of being a capital city is being the place where lawmaking takes place."

"I don't think it should be in Anchorage. It should be in Juneau," said Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, the House minority leader.

The state's popular SeniorCare program for needy elders fell victim to a game of chicken between House Republicans and Democrats during the regular legislative session that concluded in mid-May.

Republican leaders would agree to fund the SeniorCare program only if legislators would agree to permanently end the Longevity Bonus program.

Even though there was no money in the budget for the bonus, Democrats balked.

They were joined by a few Republicans in keeping the bonus; Republicans led by Rep. John Coghill, R-North Pole, killed funding for SeniorCare.

After the session, Gov. Sarah Palin said she would do whatever she could to keep needed checks coming for 7,200 of the state's poorer seniors.

House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez, said that he would support Palin, but that it might take a special session to approve the funding.

On Friday, Senate President Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, agreed with Harris' call for a special session, but the two legislative leaders added a twist: The session should be in Anchorage.

That's more convenient for legislators who live within driving distance of Anchorage but twice the cost of holding a session in Juneau, according to the Legislative Affairs Agency, which manages the business of the Legislature.

Botelho said it appeared the Legislature was putting personal interests above state interests by meeting in Anchorage.

"The decision to hold the session in Anchorage would strike me as being driven by convenience for legislators in Southcentral, not for cost savings," he said.

A three-day session in Juneau would cost about $125,000, according to an estimate released Friday by Legislative Affairs Director Pam Varni.

The Legislative Affairs Agency estimated that it would cost an additional $172,000 to have the session in Anchorage instead of Juneau, where facilities already exist for legislators.

Harris said he wants the session to be a brief one to look only at the SeniorCare program. A session called by the Legislature instead of the governor could cover a broad array of topics, however.

Harris originally said he'd like the special session to also consider pension obligation bonds, which could raise money to defray Alaska pension costs.

Harris said the Senate was derelict in failing to adopt House-approved pension obligation bond legislation which could raise $40 million a year for the state.

And Kerttula said an Anchorage session was not what she agreed to when she pledged House Democrats' support for a special session for seniors.

Still, Kerttula said that with seniors' well-being at stake, she seemed to have little choice.

"I'm going to vote for the seniors," she said.

Kerttula said she still was looking for ways to see the Legislature met in the capital, and she might have some allies in the Senate as well.

Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, is a member of the Senate Working Group, the majority coalition that elected Green to lead the Senate.

Elton was joined by Sens. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, and Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, in issuing a press release expressing concern about the location and saying they'd prefer to have it in Juneau.

Stevens is the Senate majority leader, and Stedman is co-chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee.

• Pat Forgey can be reached at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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