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Knowles' scorecard: 1 out of 5

Most of the governor's 'must-have' bills didn't fly

Posted: Monday, June 18, 2001

Gov. Tony Knowles might not look much like Arnold Schwarzenegger, but his staff says he has a Terminator-like focus on his legislative priorities.

"We'll be back," spokeswoman Claire Richardson emphasized recently, commenting on favored bills that didn't make it through the legislative process this year.

In mid-April, Knowles identified five "must-have" bills that were languishing as the May 8 adjournment deadline loomed.

One of them he got a week ago in a historic special session: Legislation was passed bringing cruise ship pollution under state regulation. A key Senate committee chairman had questioned the need for the bill, and the Republican leadership in both chambers complained about the special session, but the governor's gambit in calling lawmakers back to Juneau paid off.

But on the other four stand-alone issues, Knowles, a Democrat, was unsuccessful or had to share credit with others for getting movement.

Richardson and the governor's budget director, Annalee McConnell, said it's premature to do a scorecard on his legislative priorities. This was just the first year of a two-year session and the administration will continue pressing unfinished business next January, they say.

"You have some ideas where they need a little time to percolate," McConnell said.

Knowles called "must-have:"

An increase in the minimum wage from $5.65 an hour to $6.40.

A $425 million bonding package for transportation projects.

An expansion of Medicaid coverage for breast and cervical cancer treatment.

A veterans' preference in the state-run Pioneers' Homes, assisted living, nursing and boarding facilities.

Of those, only the breast and cervical cancer bill passed. It had been bottled up in a Senate committee and finally moved when, in a rare exception to his hands-off policy regarding the Alaska Legislature, U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski wrote to every legislator asking for action.

House Majority Leader Jeannette James said Murkowski's daughter, Lisa, a Republican representative from Anchorage, worked with Rep. Gretchen Guess, an Anchorage Democrat, to break the logjam.

But McConnell said Knowles, backed by public opinion, was effective in urging the House to reject changes made in the Senate, which would have ended the expanded coverage in two years. After the House voted 40-0 not to accept the Senate version, the resulting bill clarified that women already undergoing treatment would not be cut off, if and when the program lapsed.

On the minimum wage issue, there probably was nothing Knowles could have done to get it through, said James, a North Pole Republican.

"There are some things, you're either opposed or you're not opposed," she said. "One of them is the minimum wage - that's a toughie. Every time you raise the minimum wage, you put somebody out of work."

A proposed tip credit for employers of waitresses, which would have offset the wage increase, was opposed by the governor and became "a make-or-break issue for various groups," McConnell said. But Knowles kept the minimum wage on the front burner by becoming the first person to sign a citizen initiative for an increase, which could go before voters in 2002.

The transportation projects - using what are known as GARVEE bonds - suffered from confusion about whether a vote of the people was required to approve the alternative debt-financing mechanism, McConnell said. While the administration last year originally proposed a "general obligation" bonding project that would need to go on the ballot, the national bond market clarified since then that a state didn't have to pledge its "full faith and credit" to find investors, she said.

The revenue source for repayment would be a portion of Alaska's future federal highway funds, considered a low-risk investment. There would be no state cost because the state could invest the proceeds and pay the required match through the interest, also averting inflation by starting projects right away that ultimately must be done anyway, McConnell said.

But while the House was willing to go along, key senators questioned the wisdom and legality of the financing approach. "They thought it was borrowing from the future," James said. McConnell said she was never allowed to make a presentation on that issue to the Senate Finance Committee.

Finally, despite what James said was aggressive lobbying by the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, the Legislature didn't agree to establish a system of Pioneers' and Veterans Homes with a 125-bed set-aside for veterans. Knowles had proposed that step because Alaska is unique in not having a statewide home for veterans or plans for one. But Republicans said the designation for veterans would make no difference in the numbers served.

James said that the governor's "must-have" designation is just politics. By labeling a bill that way, "he gets credit for wanting it," she said. "Everybody does it."

But Richardson insisted that Knowles isn't giving up on any of it.

And in some key areas, she said, the governor got much more than anyone predicted when the session began in January.

Knowles got $26 million of the $34 million he sought in basic educational funding, including learning opportunity grants, McConnell said. He also got 29 of 46 school maintenance projects he had targeted, and three of four school construction projects an area he focused on, once it became clear that he couldn't get both that and the transportation package, she said.

And the effective date of the high school graduation exam was extended, although only for two years, not the four Knowles sought. The Legislature appropriated $11.4 million of the $16.9 million increase the governor had sought for the University of Alaska.

On education, "I think there's still work to be done," Richardson said.

Knowles got some of what he wanted in higher staffing levels for public safety and wildlife management, but he views status quo funding of alcohol treatment programs as "a major disappointment," McConnell said.

She said part of the problem could be a reluctance by the Republican-led Legislature to let Knowles get credit for new programs. "That's probably true, and if so I think Alaska really suffers for it."

James professed not even to know what the governor's "must-have" list was. "I quite frankly wasn't paying much attention to the governor's goals."

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



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