Legislature to return for special session

Lawmakers maintain view that decision on benefits should wait

Posted: Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Legislature will meet in Juneau on Monday for a special session almost nobody wants.

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"I think it is an unnecessary expense to the state," said Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau.

"I think it ought to be delayed until next year," said Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, R-Juneau.

Gov. Frank Murkowski called the special session to deal with the issue of employment benefits for same-sex partners. The Alaska Supreme Court called it discriminatory to provide benefits for married partners, but not unmarried partners, and told the state to correct the problem by Jan. 1.

Rather than implementing new rules himself, Murkowski called the Legislature into special session to deal with the issue.

Weyhrauch did not run for re-election, and several other legislators either retired or were defeated, as was Murkowski.

With Democratic gains in the Legislature and Murkowski leaving office shortly, the special session is looking like lame duck habitat.

A new Legislature and new governor ought to deal with the issue, Weyhrauch said, and Murkowski doesn't want to deal with the problem on his own.

"Nobody wants to deal with it," he said.

If Murkowski won't impose the new rules himself, Weyhrauch said the legislature may simply pass a resolution asking the court for more time so the new Legislature and governor can deal with the issue.

Juneau Sen. Kim Elton said the governor could deal with the issue himself.

"I don't think a session is necessary, he said. "We have an opinion from Legislative Legal ... that the governor has the legal authority to comply with the Supreme Court ruling," he said.

Kerttula said she felt it would be an easy issue for incoming governor Sarah Palin, given her campaign.

"We've got an incoming governor that ran on the Constitution, and our Constitution demands equal protection," she said.

Elton said some people have been making too much of the issue.

"This is not an argument about civil unions. This is not an argument about gay marriage," he said.

Legislative leaders had balked at even having a special session, but the Associated Press reported Friday that House Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, was now willing to address the issue in the session.

Legislative leaders also had feared the session would be used to force a decision on a natural gas contract. They earlier went to court to stop Murkowski from acting independently to sign a contract, and won a ruling.

Weyhrauch said he thought it was highly unlikely that the legislators would be asked to deal with the gasline issue.

Still, he said it was hard to predict what would happen. The Legislature could chose to adjourn immediately after arriving in Juneau, or they could do extensive work on the benefits or other issues.

"It's putting puppies under a blanket, I don't know what they are going to do," he said.

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