After pomp, politics takes over as session opens

Posted: Tuesday, January 09, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- The strains of ceremonial music had scarcely faded on the Legislature's first day Monday when the Senate's Republican majority denied a Democrat a key committee post.

Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, had been the minority's choice for one of its two seats on the Finance Committee, which writes budgets and deals with virtually all bills of substance. But the Committee on Committees, controlled by Republicans, rejected Elton in favor of freshman Donny Olson, D-Nome.

Senate President Rick Halford, R-Chugiak, said he wanted to make sure the oil-rich North Slope was represented on the committee.

''Sen. Olson represents the area where most of the money comes from, '' Halford said. ''The capital city is always well-represented because we're all here.''

Elton and other minority Democrats protested the majority's intrusion into their organization.

''I'm disappointed that the first thing that has happened this session is to short-sheet the minority,'' said Elton.

Republicans said they were simply trying to maintain geographic balance on the committee and noted that Southeast Alaska is already represented on the panel by Alan Austerman, R-Kodiak, whose district stretches into the region's rural islands.

''It is not about partisanship, it is not about personality, it is not about politics,'' said Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks. ''It is about regionalism.''

However, the majority's move rids the Finance Committee of one of the Legislature's most liberal members, who would likely be a vocal opponent of budget cuts and other conservative proposals.

Olson said he had not approached the majority in search of the seat, although he said he had sought a Finance assignment from his fellow Democrats. He praised Elton and voted against the GOP's move to oust him, but agreed with Halford's position that the area that produces the majority of state revenue should be represented on the committee that spends the money.

''Somebody from that area should be on the committee,'' Olson said.

Earlier in the day, the session began with pomp and music. A color guard of Girl Scouts straining to hold in giggles brought in the flags in the House, while Senators were treated to the Alaska Flag Song played as a violin solo by Audrey Solomon, the current Miss Alaska.

Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer opened both the House and the Senate, swearing in 39 members of the House and the 10 senators elected in November. Rep. Jim Whitaker, R-Fairbanks, was the only member absent, kept away by Juneau's inhospitable weather.

The House then confirmed the decision of its Republican majority, reelecting House Speaker Brian Porter, R-Anchorage, to a second term on a 39-0 vote.

Porter used the occasion to call for bipartisan cooperation and asked members to set aside any bitterness lingering from the election.

''It may be my last opportunity for unabashed pontification from this position,'' Porter said. ''I would like to ask us to close the lid on the election box.''

In the Senate, Halford was chosen Senate President without objection. Like Porter's, his election had been preordained by the GOP majority caucus.

Among the newly elected lawmakers was Sen. Bettye Davis, D-Anchorage, the Senate's first black member. The Senate's galleries were crowded with black leaders from her east Anchorage district and elsewhere in Alaska, as well as her grandchildren.

Aside from the Senate's rejection of Elton, ceremony was more the order of the day than policy and politics, with delegations from both houses marching down the halls of the Capitol to inform Gov. Tony Knowles they were ready to do business

But little real business was conducted. More than 50 bills and resolutions already filed by lawmakers were formally introduced, and the House created a Special Committee on Education.

After the session adjourned, House Republicans retreated into a closed-door caucus meeting to work out their priorities for the session. The GOP Senate majority held a similar meeting yesterday.

Although a natural gas line from the North Slope, education, drunken driving and budget issues are expected to loom large this session, Republicans will likely hold off on any formal announcements until after Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat, delivers his State of the State speech on Wednesday.

On Monday, Knowles singled out the gas line to the Lower 48 as his top priority, signing an administrative order creating a pipeline coordinator's office to streamline permitting for such a project. He also introduced a bill designed to give the state more flexibility to alter the state's tax structure to make such a project more attractive to potential developers.

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