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Legislature running long, again

Posted: April 7, 2012 - 9:07pm

JUNEAU — The Alaska Legislature is scheduled to end next weekend. But from the look of things — including some glum faces around the Capitol — the odds of that happening are extremely long.

With the April 15th adjournment date looming, several big issues remain unresolved, including the biggest issue of the 27th Legislature: oil taxes.

Senate President Gary Stevens said Saturday that it’s his intent to get the operating and capital budgets, as well as an infrastructure bond package, finished within the confines of the 90-day session so that the “only thing outstanding” would be oil taxes.

He said he hadn’t talked to House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, about HB9, an in-state gas pipeline bill and priority of Chenault’s that is currently in the first of three scheduled committees on the Senate side. 

The issue of additional education funding to help school districts with rising costs of doing business also remains but could be attached to the operating budget.

It’s not clear yet how an overtime session would work: Would the Legislature call itself back in? Would the governor again be asked to step in? The state constitution allows for a 121-day regular session but a voter initiative limited sessions to 90 days. That was a point of tension between the Senate and House last year, with members of the Senate majority seemingly willing to keep working past 90 days and members of the House majority wanting to stay within the voter initiative.

Both chambers, unable to agree on an adjournment date, last year took the rare step of asking Gov. Sean Parnell to immediately end the regular session and call them back to address unresolved issues.

Earlier this session, Stevens, R-Kodiak, said he had hoped to get an oil tax bill to the House with at least a month left in session. But the work obviously has taken longer than expected. Stevens said the deeper one gets into the issue, the more complex it becomes and the harder it gets for those outside the industry to understand. That’s where things are now. 

“We all have to understand, we all have to know exactly what we’re voting on,” he said. 

While Senate Minority Leader John Coghill commended the Senate Finance Committee and co-chair Bert Stedman for delving so deeply into the issue, he also expressed frustration with the timing, the fact things are where they are so late in the session. Coghill, R-North Pole, said some issues raised earlier on in this session’s debate — like Senate Resources Committee hearings on a judge’s finding, in a property tax dispute, that there were likely decades of life left in the trans-Alaska pipeline — seemed diversionary.

The Senate has been working on the oil tax issue since February, and the current proposal before the Senate Finance Committee represents a structural change from the current tax system. 

Questions have been raised about the modeling legislative consultants did for the committee, and Stevens said it’s imperative that those questions be cleared up and lawmakers have correct information. The issue has huge ramifications for this oil-dependent state. The committee plans to take up the issue again Monday.

“It’s absolutely critical we get this oil tax right, so that’s why we’re taking the time we are,” he said. “It would be easy to rush a decision but we don’t want to do that. We want to make sure what we send the House is as good a bill as possible.”

Assuming a bill passes the Senate — Stevens said there’s “general support” within his bipartisan caucus for the ideas laid out in the bill — the House will take the time to hear and vet the measure, Chenault said this week.

Chenault said it is important to Alaska’s future, and to the state’s revenue stream, to look at whatever the Senate passes and see if it encourages new investment. The end goal of the oil tax debate is finding ways to boost now-flagging production. 

The Senate last year refused to follow the House and pass the governor’s oil tax-cut plan. Senate leaders at the time said they didn’t have enough information to make a sound policy call. 

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