Lancaster says special session needed

Posted: Tuesday, January 29, 2002

Before passing any laws that would require more spending, state lawmakers should hold a special session within the regular session that aims at one target -- a workable long-range fiscal plan, Republican Rep. Ken Lancaster of Soldotna said Monday.

"We shouldn't move on the myriad of some 600 bills, 80 percent of which have costs attached to them," until such a session is held, he said.

Whether that will happen is anyone's guess, but what appears clear is that many in the House are ready to tackle the complexities of writing such a plan. Finding a formula for reducing spending without hampering government functions will be the focus of a joint caucus of Alaska House majority and minority members scheduled for Wednesday evening.

Republican Senate leaders meanwhile, have said new spending proposals won't find favor there. They've already called for limits on spending in the form of Senate Joint Resolution 23. Sponsored by Sen. Dave Donley, R-Anchorage, SJR 23 would place a constitutional spending limit amendment before the voters next fall. If adopted, it would set a ceiling on spending and require agreement by two-thirds of both houses to exceed it.

Lancaster said he agrees in principal, but it's the reality that must be faced. Certain spending increases may be unavoidable.

"There's been a tremendous amount of talk (in the House) about bringing the Senate along," Lancaster said Monday. "I don't disagree with the premise, but if you're here and embroiled in the building of the budget ... it's almost impossible to cap it at some number."

The need to match federal funds, meet automatic escalator clauses in negotiated contracts, pay for the natural increases in costs due to inflation, all factor in determining how much the state must spend each year, he said.

The House will look for ways to find the Senate's comfort level, Lancaster said. That could include discussion of such things as eliminating projects and across-the-board spending cuts, among other things.

"If we have to massage Donley's bill, we'll have to do that," Lancaster said.

Senate and House members of the Fiscal Policy Caucus met Thursday in an informal gathering "off campus" to discuss the future of the caucus, Lancaster said.

"We want to stay together to make this work," he said. "I think we should have a special session within the session to address a long-range fiscal plan before anything else."

Any plan they might come up with won't be received well by Lancaster's Senate colleague, Sen. Jerry Ward, R-Nikiski, unless it's tied to limits on state spending.

"It appears there is a group in the House and in the Senate and the governor's office that truly believe they know how to spend the people's money better than they do," he said, referring to the fiscal caucus' call for new taxes and other revenue-generating measures.

Ward said many of the proposals from the governor and others are "feel good" items, but it is time to start spending within the state's means. He said he would not sign a blank check for more government spending.

If Alaskans are given the chance to vote on a constitutional spending limit amendment and it passes, then he'll be ready to look at new spending. That, of course, will mean other areas might be cut in order to remain underneath the cap.

On Monday, Ward sent a message to members of the fiscal caucus proposing a new alcohol tax that could raise $75 million, but tying it to the success of the spending limit amendment at the polls. He also called for $75 million more in spending cuts and movement on developing more of Alaska's lands.

Ward said his memo to the group was "just a draft" of an idea to "get them off the dime." Ward has opposed taxes in the past and said his alcohol tax proposal was just food for thought. He said he didn't know if he'd support it in the end. In any case, he said, it is tied to the success of the spending limit amendment, which could make an alcohol tax more palatable.

Rep. Drew Scalzi, R-Homer, said an artificially established spending limit could do more harm than good. He said he did not want to tie the next governor's hands, no matter which party he or she may be from. Governors "have a responsibility" to administer the state, a job that could be hampered by a limit. he said.

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