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Heavy workload in Legislature's final week

Posted: April 7, 2013 - 9:22pm

JUNEAU — The end is near. Right? The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn from its 90-day session on Sunday, with a number of major pieces — oil taxes, budgets, an in-state gas line bill — still in play.

Legislative leaders say they’re on track to meet the deadline, but that will mean very long days — and marathon committee meetings, in the case of House Finance — until the end. Some lawmakers have already complained about the blistering pace this year, and questioned whether major bills, like that oil tax overhaul and gas line bill, are getting their due.

Since the Legislature went to the 90-day format in 2008, there has been only one year, 2010, in which there wasn’t at least one special session.

In the push to the end, here are three things to watch:

OIL TAXES: This has been the dominant issue all session, and changes made in the House could either seal the deal or upend a fragile coalition of support in the Senate.

The latest version of the bill advanced by the House Resources Committee could cost the state between $5.7 billion and $6 billion between next fiscal year and 2019. The impact on the high end would be the greatest of any version of the bill that has advanced thus far. The version that passed the Senate by one vote last month had an estimated negative fiscal impact, a mix of the effect on revenue and the operating budget, of $4.5 billion and $5.8 billion through 2019.

The analyses are based on the fall forecast for oil prices and production and cast as a worst-case scenario, given the forecast called for a continued net decline in North Slope oil and the goal of the tax cut is to increase investment and production.

A new forecast was released Friday.

Supporters of a tax cut, including Gov. Sean Parnell, say the state can’t afford to stand by and do nothing as oil production continues to decline. Critics share the desire to increase more production, but say this is a dangerous proposal and the wrong way to go.

Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, said he has some concerns with the latest version of the bill, primarily that it might leave the state too vulnerable at low prices. Micciche was one of the 11 who voted for the bill that passed the Senate. There have been no signs of softening among the nine senators who voted against the bill as SB21 has continued to advance.

Rep. Eric Feige, co-chair of the House Resources Committee, said the change in the base tax rate proposed by his committee would put Alaska in the range that the consultants said would make it more competitive.

“At some point, you’re either competitive or you’re not,” Feige, R-Chickaloon, told a news conference Friday. “And as I’ve told members of the press, all of you, the worst nightmare I have is that we don’t lower it enough. We lower it just enough so that we’ve given up tax revenue, but we haven’t lowered it enough to get investment into the state.”

The bill is in the House Finance Committee. Assuming it passes the House, the Senate will either have to agree to changes made on that side or the bill will go to a conference committee, where House and Senate negotiators will try to iron out their differences.

EDUCATION: Legislative leaders last week said they’re still discussing the potential for additional education funding. Some Republican lawmakers, as well as Parnell, have been reluctant to support automatic increases in the base-student allocation, the amount the state guarantees districts for every student enrolled.

Just what a package might look like remained murky, though lawmakers said they planned to do something to help districts meet rising costs.

“There are truly members that think that we should not increase education funding until we have accountability and as I’ve explained to them, I’m OK with accountability, but you have to be able to tell them what you want so that they know what to go out and produce,” House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, told reporters Friday. “And if we can’t tell them what (we) want, then how do we hold back that funding?”

House and Senate leaders have said they plan to study the issue of education funding during the interim. Similar plans on the House side last year went nowhere.

HOUSE AND SENATE FINANCE: Both committees are in the midst of hearing the last remaining big bills this session. House Finance has oil taxes and the capital budget. Senate Finance has the in-state gas line bill.

Both have a number of other bills in their queue but none of the pending bills — in those committees or others — will die at the end of session. Instead, they will carry over to next year.

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