Legislature starts session House, Senate get new opportunity to fix old problems

Posted: Wednesday, January 22, 2003

JUNEAU (AP) -- The 23rd Alaska Legislature began Tuesday with a lot of new faces facing the same old problems.

Alaska faces skyrocketing Medicaid expenses, a growing budget deficit, state employee union contracts and no end in sight to resolving the state's subsistence dilemma.

''A lot of the problems are still the same,'' said Rep. Max Gruenberg, D-Anchorage, who returns to the Legislature after an 11-year absence.

Republicans who control the Legislature hold high hopes for this session. For the first time in more than 30 years, the GOP controls both the Legislature and the governor's office.

Republican leaders say they will wait for guidance from Gov. Frank Murkowski on some of the state's most pressing problems, including formulating the state's $2.2 billion general fund budget.

''For the first time we've really got a team, in my opinion, to benefit all Alaskans,'' said Sen. John Cowdery, R-Anchorage.

Republicans had a contentious relationship with Democrat Gov. Tony Knowles during his two terms. Republican leaders said they look forward to more access to the third floor of the Capitol, where the governor's office is located.

Minority Democrats were quick to say that Republicans control the state's budget process and that a new GOP administration will mean higher expectations.

''I guess our realization toward the Republicans and the third floor is no more excuses. No place to hide,'' said Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage.

Much of the first legislative day was spent on ceremony, with lawmakers taking the oath of office and formalizing committee and leadership assignments.

Lt. Gov. Loren Leman administered the oath of office for lawmakers elected in November. Rep. Nancy Dahlstrom, R-Eagle River, also officially took office after being appointed to replace U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the House.

Leman, who served in the Legislature from 1988-2002 and last year was Senate majority leader, said taking the oath of office for the first time ''is a euphoric feeling.''

This year ushers in a new Legislature, with the retirement of House Speaker Brian Porter, Senate President Rick Halford and several key leaders.

The Legislature also has 17 freshmen sworn in on Tuesday. A large freshman class brings with it advantages and disadvantages, said Gruenberg, the returning lawmaker.

''People come with their own agendas and fresh ideas and lack of knowledge,'' Gruenberg said.

New ideas are always welcome, but the state's budget problems leave little room for new spending.

Alaska's chronic budget shortfall is expected to be more than $500 million by the end of this fiscal year, aided somewhat by higher-than-expected oil prices.

The state Department of Revenue estimates Alaska's $1.9 billion Constitutional Budget Reserve, the state's savings account, will be dry by June 2005.

Lawmakers are also bracing for a supplemental spending request early this session to make up for Medicaid shortfalls and money spent on natural disasters such as flooding, wildfire and a major earthquake. House leaders said it could be more than $100 million this year.

At the same time, a new study commissioned for the Legislature shows that education costs in some rural districts are not as high as previously thought.

House Speaker Pete Kott, R-Eagle River, said state schools will likely receive more funding than in previous years but it is unclear how rural schools will be affected.

House and Senate leaders appeared split on how serious the state's fiscal problems are. Rep. John Harris, R-Valdez, co-chairman of the Finance Committee, said lawmakers there would continue to discuss new revenues to raise awareness of the state's chronic budget woes.

Senate Finance Co-chairman Gary Wilken, R-Fairbanks, said dire predictions about past fiscal problems that have threatened to drain the state's savings account have not materialized.

''It's been going out of business since I've been here. It just keeps on rolling,'' Wilken said of the state's Constitutional Budget Reserve.

Republican lawmakers in both houses say they will wait for Murkowski to devise a plan. Murkowski won election on a pledge not to institute statewide taxes and to grow Alaska's resource industries such as oil and gas.

''The governor ran on the issue of no taxes and the people of the state voted him in,'' said Rep. Bill Williams, a co-chairman of the House Finance Committee. ''I think that's where we're getting our feel from right now.''

Murkowski will deliver his first State of the State address to a joint session of the Legislature on Thursday.



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