What's in store next session?

Majority ponders priorities

Posted: Sunday, December 03, 2000

A string of drunken-driving deaths and the need for more state revenue have put tougher alcohol laws and higher liquor taxes on the wish-lists of some Republicans.

The co-chair of the House Finance Committee, Rep. Eldon Mulder, an Anchorage Republican, said he expects the House majority next session will seriously discuss increasing the alcohol tax as a way to raise revenue for state government. Senate Majority Leader Loren Leman, an Anchorage Republican, said a bigger tax on alcohol is on the Senate's radar, too.

"It's possible there may be interest by some in the Senate and some in the House for that," said Leman, who added Senate Republicans still are drafting their priorities for next session. "I seriously believe we will have hearings on certain measures to increase revenues."

A recent spate of fatal accidents caused by drunken drivers, including one that killed Juneau resident Ladd Macaulay, has stepped up the pressure on lawmakers to take action.

Leman said the incidents are spurring people to take a serious look at drunken driving laws, and that another proposal to lower the legal blood-alcohol level from 0.10 to 0.08 for drivers is on the priority list of some Senate Republicans. But he did not confirm whether the Senate majority as a group would push for it.

"We haven't released our priorities yet," Leman said. "In my opinion that will pass, probably this year rather than next year."

Republicans in the majority will start the session in January with a laundry list of things they want to accomplish, but any proposal to tap Alaska Permanent Fund earnings for state programs likely won't be on it. Leman has said Senate Republicans would not seriously consider any proposal that would dip into the fund's income, and that sentiment was echoed by Mulder, although the House majority hasn't decided whether to broach the subject again.

"We very vividly remember Sept. 14 of last year," said Mulder, referring to an advisory vote by Alaskans who overwhelmingly rejected the idea of tapping permanent fund earnings for government.

Lawmakers put the question of using fund money to voters in 1999 after oil prices fell to all-time lows, and the state faced a multi-million dollar deficit. Leman said current high oil prices have delayed the state's financial problems, and Mulder agreed, saying the Legislature likely will leave the issue to future lawmakers.

"There will reach a point when we reach a cliff, and we're jumping off the cliff of fiscal abyss, that a future Legislature will have to ask the question, 'Are we willing to support using permanent fund interest earnings?' We are not there, and because we are not there, I'm not going to support it at this point in time," said Mulder.

Mulder said many of his colleagues agree with him, but Rep. Bill Hudson, a Juneau Republican, said that won't stop him from pushing the idea even though it likely will be an uphill battle.

"There are some of us that will continue to put that issue before the public because we believe the time to make long-term constructive changes is when you're in good shape, not when you're in distress," Hudson said.

Republicans on both sides might apply different budget strategies next year than in years past. The Republican majorities in May completed a plan to cut $250 million in general-fund spending over five years, but it's unclear whether Republicans will continue their budget-cutting quest next session.

Leman said some "unique needs" have arisen in education and social services that have created "challenges." Asked whether the Senate majority would advocate increased general fund spending next session, he said, "I think it's fair to say we want to continue to exercise budget discipline or restraint, but we also recognize there are going to be some unique needs that we're going to have to fill."

Mulder said one of the primary focuses of the House next session will be on education, including an evaluation of a high school graduation exam, which goes into effect in 2002. Lawmakers also are expected to review a school-funding formula that angered rural school districts when it passed two years ago. The state Department of Education is required to complete an evaluation of the new formula by Jan. 15 and present it to lawmakers.

House and Senate leaders also said they expect to explore proposals for a pipeline to tap vast natural gas reserves on the North Slope. Several entities have come forward with proposals, including one calling for an offshore gas pipeline running through Canada. Another plan would run the pipeline south through Alaska, then through the Yukon. Mulder called the issue a "high priority" and said lawmakers probably will pass a resolution in favor of a route.

"Only speaking for myself, not the rest of the majority ... the southern route through Alaska is the only route I want to see," said Mulder, who added the Legislature will probably tailor any incentives around a preferred route.

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