Lawmakers work to restore Alaskans' trust

Two days into the special session, some lawmakers seeing changes in the Capitol

Posted: Sunday, October 21, 2007

Some lawmakers say they hope to emerge from the special legislative session with renewed public trust that has eroded with two former lawmakers already convicted on federal corruption charges.

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Gov. Sarah Palin called the Legislature back to work to review the state's petroleum profits tax she believes is tainted by the ongoing federal corruption probe. On Friday, hearings began on Palin's bill that calls for a tax increase from 22.5 percent to 25 percent.

"If we don't do anything, we still have a cloud over us," said House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez.

Harris didn't specifically say what changes would satisfy critics, but he understands the backdrop is shrouding the session.

The federal corruption probe has stretched from Juneau to Capitol Hill, where Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young, both Alaska Republicans, are under scrutiny.

Lawmakers will continue to conduct hearings on Palin's bill through the weekend. But by Monday, the cloud Harris speaks of could darken a bit.

That's the same day former Rep. Vic Kohring, R-Wasilla, begins his trial on bribery and extortion charges in Anchorage.

Also charged in connection with deliberations over the current oil tax were former Republican Reps. Pete Kott, who was convicted on three counts last month, and Bruce Weyhrauch, whose trial has been postponed.

Former VECO Corp. executives Bill Allen and Rick Smith have already pleaded guilty to bribing lawmakers and are government witnesses in the corruption cases.

Since the indictments against the state lawmakers, Stevens and Young have also come under question for their relationships with VECO executives.

In addition, former state Rep. Tom Anderson, R-Anchorage, was sentenced last week to five years in prison on unrelated bribery charges.

Despite this, Senate President Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, isn't so sure the corruption cloud is as dark as some portray it.

"I don't plan to change any vote I made," she said. "I think the cloud has been vastly overrated. I'm sorry, I don't think you have to go back and change anything."

She also said if you're going revisit one vote, then every bill passed in 2005 and 2006 should also be revisited.

Many lawmakers still recall last year's contentious oil tax debate that produced hard feelings and lingering resentment.

But just two days into the special session, some lawmakers already are seeing a change in the Capitol - at least in the halls where lobbyists hang out.

"I think the climate is very different," said Rep. Harry Crawford, D-Anchorage. "There is no body here in the building that is taking VECO's place."

Minority Leader Beth Kerttula said Thursday's daylong session with two industry consultants espousing opposing views was a good start.

Last year, many opposing former Gov. Frank Murkowski's tax plan felt shut out of the debate. That, Kerttula says, has changed.

"Every single one of us has to recognize the public perception and loss of trust is definitely an issue," the Juneau Democrat said. "If we have an open, free flow of information, we have some people here who can figure a way."

While making no promises for change, several lawmakers said returning to Juneau with a clean slate doesn't hurt.

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