No action on bonus expected

Posted: Wednesday, January 14, 2004

An effort to turn back Gov. Frank Murkowski's veto of the Longevity Bonus Program appears dead in the water.

The day after the Republican majority in the House turned back an effort by Democrats to call a joint session to consider a veto override, lawmakers representing the Kenai Peninsula were saying that resurrecting the program is highly unlikely.

"I know it is difficult for people in my district that have lost the bonus checks," said Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, who represents the southern peninsula.

"The real problem is where do you find $40 million? It's all well and good to try and find a way to reinstate it, but it's not enough to just say 'let's do it.' The next step is to find the money. That's a tremendous amount."

Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, along with others, successfully fought to ensure the bonus program remained a part of the budget the Legislature passed last spring. But the governor vetoed the spending to reduce costs.

Now Wagoner doesn't see much chance for an override, given there are only a few days left in the window of opportunity. Lawmakers have five days at the start of a session to call for a veto override vote.

"I think we are riding a dead horse," Wagoner said. "I don't see the numbers of people willing to bring it back before the body to vote on it again."

Wagoner also said he doesn't see a good reason for bills that have been introduced that aim to reinstate the bonus program.

"All that happened (last year) was the governor vetoed the funds," he said. "The bonus program is still on the books. ... What is the advantage of new bills that do the same thing? I don't understand the reasoning, except to keep it an issue until the election."

He said he expects Democrats to raise the Longevity Bonus veto issue every chance they get.

Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, said he sees no reason for a joint session to address an override. He said Monday's floor vote rejecting a call for a joint session was a procedural vote, one meant to consider the call for a joint session and not a forum for discussion of the central issue of the override itself.

It was Democratic Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage, who moved for the vote on whether to invite the Senate for a joint session. But when he attempted to discuss the veto issue itself, Rep. Norm Rokeberg, R-Anchorage, cut him off saying discussion going beyond simply stating the reason for a joint session was out of order.

Only Anchorage Republican Rep. Bob Lynn voted with the minority, but the motion failed 11-27.

Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, said majority members have agreed to vote with the leadership on procedural votes and the final budget bill, hence his own vote against a joint session.

At a minority press conference Monday afternoon, Democratic Party leaders said they are committed to the goals of funding public education, supporting a sound fiscal policy, building a natural gas pipeline and ensuring healthy and safe communities.

Democrats also expressed willingness to discuss the proposed Percent-of-Market-Value approach to handling the earnings of the Alaska Permanent Fund. Peninsula lawmakers expressed some reservations about the POMV.

Wagoner said if the Legislature is going to discuss sending the POMV question to the voters, there ought also be debate over the Economic Limitation Factor, or ELF, which applies severance taxes on oil fields depending upon their age and productivity.

Stevens said the POMV makes sense to him, but acknowledged "it would be a hard sell."

Seaton said such an asset-based accounting system for an asset-based fund has merit. But he also said that any ballot issue would have to make clear the nature of the split between dividends and what becomes available to lawmakers for budget appropriations.

Chenault said the POMV appears to be a "fundamentally sound" approach, but a complex one that may confuse voters and that could spell its demise at the polls. Chenault also said, however, that before he would vote to send the POMV question to the voters, he would want to vote on sending a constitutional spending limit amendment to the voters as well. He said he is confident a spending limit would pass.

Democrats also decried the Senate's inability or unwillingness to offer its own fiscal plan.

Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, the Senate minority leader, said that body has typically let the governor or the House be the source of such initiatives. He also said the Senate often waits until the end of legislative sessions before engaging in any serious discussions about the fiscal problems.

"Nothing ever seems to happen in the Senate," he said Monday. "It's a disservice. We are begging and praying for a change in attitude among the leadership."

Wagoner said the Senate is considering a bill to put a constitutional spending limit before the voters and that he would be a co-sponsor. That bill is Senate Joint Resolution 3 introduced by Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, in early May last year.

"At least that will get the debate going," he said. "We are not just sitting back."

To a degree, Chenault sided with Ellis.

"I think the House does do a lot of the heavy lifting, so to speak," he said. "It has fallen on our shoulders to look at these issues and take the heat. There has been some discussion about that the Senate doing something."

Seaton said everyone should be working toward solving the state's largest problem.

"I don't think anyone is sitting back," he said.

Democrats also said Alaskans shouldn't bear the burden of any new fiscal plan alone. The permanent fund can't be the only source of new revenues, and if taxes are considered, they should impact Outsiders as well as residents, they said.

"The only way to tax people who don't reside here is with an income tax," Wagoner said. "Then we are placing a burden on all people in Alaska just so we can levy a tax on a small percentage of people from Outside."

He said there may be other ways to accomplish that and said some lawmakers are investigating other possible taxes, such as taxing businesses based on the number of out-of-state workers they employ. Asked if that would pass constitutional muster, Wagoner said he did not know but the issue is being studied..

Wagoner said he has no problem with a simple head tax of $100 a year, or $50 per quarter, levied on all workers in the state regardless of residence. That would tax all yet not be too burdensome, he said.

Rep. Kelly Wolf, R-Kenai, did not return a phone call by the Clarion's deadline Tuesday.

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