Special session gets under way

Regulatory panel, vets money on agenda

Posted: Monday, June 24, 2002

The Capitol started to come back to life this morning for a special session legislators didn't want.

"I view this as a legislative detention," said Anchorage Democratic Rep. Eric Croft as he walked in the building with an overnight bag slung over his shoulder. "We didn't do what we should have, so we're forced to stay after school and write 50 times on the chalk board, 'I will not kill the RCA.' "

The Regulatory Commission of Alaska, the state entity that oversees the conduct of public utilities, is at the center of the special session, which was to begin this afternoon. The session is expected to last three or four days.

The House overwhelmingly passed a four-year extension of the RCA during the regular session, but Senate Judiciary Chairman Robin Taylor blocked the bill in that chamber, with the support of Senate President Rick Halford.

Without legislative action, the RCA begins a one-year "wind-down" on Monday, which might limit its ability to take new cases.

Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat, called the special session to avert that. Knowles' chief of staff, David Ramseur, said extending the RCA is "a consumer protection issue."

"I think we're hoping once they gavel in this afternoon they make short work of the issues that are before them," said Knowles spokesman Bob King. "I think the issues are pretty well understood."

Asked if the RCA debate can be resolved this week, Senate Majority Leader Loren Leman gestured at Taylor's dark, locked office and said: "It depends on how ornery this guy wants to be."

The issue isn't partisan. Leman, of Anchorage, and Taylor, of Wrangell, are Republican candidates for lieutenant governor.

Halford, from Chugiak, is also a Republican.

The RCA battle largely is about the "phone wars" periodically waged at the Capitol between telecommunications rivals GCI and ACS.

GCI has broken into local telephone markets previously monopolized by ACS, including Juneau's, due to RCA rulings that have been upheld in court. ACS contends it's forced to let GCI use its existing infrastructure without adequate compensation. Critics say the commission has been biased in GCI's favor.

House Finance Co-Chairman Eldon Mulder, an Anchorage Republican, said there will be "quick action on the RCA" in his chamber.

"I think you'll have the RCA bill through the House by early tomorrow," Mulder said.

Halford suggested that whatever ultimately passes on the RCA and on funding for the state-run Pioneers' and Veterans' Homes, the second issue of the special session, won't make much difference.

"I have never considered that these two issues were that overwhelming to a governor with five more months in office," Halford said. "I don't expect the product will have any significant impact on any particular beneficiaries that would have been any different than if it had been considered next year."

Croft said the Republican-controlled Legislature probably will pass something slightly less than the governor's request for $2.6 million for veterans funding, "like a childish thing." The money would be used to hire staff to fill up to 100 vacancies in the assisted-living and nursing homes, although Halford said it still would be contingent upon federal approval.

At least one veto override attempt appears likely during the special session.

Last week, Knowles vetoed a campaign finance bill he said wasn't tough enough on regulating so-called "issue advertisements." The governor said it still would allow Outside "soft-money" attacks on particular candidates, while supporter Gene Therriault, a Republican senator from North Pole, said it would improve upon existing law.

There probably also will be discussion of controversial road and park closures implemented by the Knowles administration after the Legislature made cuts in certain operating budgets.

Halford said the issues could be resolved easily with an agreement between the governor and legislators who are likely to be in leadership next year that the funds could be covered in a supplemental appropriations bill in the next session.

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



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