Wagoner: Minority in the majority

Bipartisan Senate coalition leaves Kenai lawmaker in unfamiliar territory

Posted: Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Sen. Tom Wagoner last week called the bipartisan Senate majority coalition’s claim that it would tackle the big issues confronting Alaska a kind of “cop out.”

Coalition leaders have pledged concerted efforts to boost education funding, move on a gas pipeline deal and reestablish some form of municipal revenue sharing. Wagoner, R-Kenai, who is not a part of the coalition, said that while those issues are key, common ground ought not be difficult to find. They aim at goals already enjoying significant levels of support from both Democrats and Republicans.

“To say they’re going to work on education is just a cop out,” Wagoner said. “Everybody is supportive of education funding. If there is an issue in education, it is the area cost differential, but education as a whole is not an issue (of disagreement) down here.”

Pushing for a natural gas pipeline is a no-brainer. “Of course everyone will work on the pipeline!” Wagoner said. The same goes for municipal revenue sharing, he added.

Wagoner finds even more fault with another coalition assurance — that it will attempt to avoid issues on which members would be more likely to disagree and for which solutions could be harder to find.

“Isn’t that why we were elected? To tackle the tough issues?” he said.

Since 2003, Wagoner has served his Kenai Peninsula constituency from a confident position in an Alaska Senate ruled by the Republican majority. But then came the November general election.

Democrats, previously outnumbered by Republicans 12-8, picked up another seat. More importantly, divisions within the GOP then led six Republicans to form a coalition with all nine Democrats, now called the Senate Majority Working Group. Wagoner and four other Republicans refused to join.

Coalition member elected Sen. Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, to the Senate president’s chair, while Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, the 24th Legislature’s Senate Majority Leader, assumed that role again. Democrats, meanwhile, assumed leadership positions in key committees they might otherwise have been denied had an all-Republican majority retained control.

So what will it mean for Wagoner to be, as they say, on the outside? What might it mean for his legislative priorities, and issues of importance to the Kenai Peninsula Borough and Senate District Q?

In a conversation Jan. 24, Wagoner said he did not expect to face too much difficulty working with the majority coalition and that the big issues for the peninsula would likely see fairly broad support.

“My number one priority is helping Agrium succeed in its Blue Sky Project,” Wagoner said. “Everyone down here has been very supportive, whether they are on the majority or minority side.”

He assured his constituency that his voice would be as loud as ever for education funding, adding that peninsula schools will be well represented, especially with a staunch ally on the House side, Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, a co-chair of the powerful House Finance Committee and long-time advocate for increased school spending.

The coalition’s public declaration that it would take on key big issues while avoiding hot potatoes rings a bit hollow, Wagoner said, because by and large the really key issues are not divisive.

Coalition members are more likely to split over such things as restoring the longevity bonus program, same-sex marriage benefits and additional spending on social programs, to name a few. Senate Majority Leader Stevens said recently that bills proposing increased spending for social programs could face difficulty winning coalition consensus.

Other divisions may arise when the Senate gets down to brass tacks over Gov. Sarah Palin’s proposed operating budget, Wagoner predicted.

“Everyone is scratching his head waiting to see how the governor would cut $150 million out of the operating budget, and at the same time, put in about $400 million worth of other expenditures,” Wagoner said.

On the public employee and teacher retirement programs dilemma — the programs are more than $7 billion in debt — Wagoner said he’s developing an idea that might help, though he admitted it could look like something from “the lunatic fringe.”

One of the problems with the retirement programs, he said, has been early retirement incentives.

“Maybe we need to look outside the box,” he said. “What if we paid people a bonus not to retire early? They give bonuses for re-upping in the military. Maybe we should give bonuses that encourage people to stay on the job and continue to be an active part of the government.”

On extending state worker benefits to same-sex partners — the state is currently under a court order to make that happen — Wagoner proposes stepping out of the political minefield by simply allowing any worker, regardless of sexual orientation, to add one other person — spouse, partner, parent — to their insurance plan.

“That makes it a person’s choice,” he said. “We should facilitate that.”

Dependent children would automatically qualify for coverage as they do now, he said.

Wagoner also said he was working on a measure to disallow BP to charge expenses for repairing corroded pipes it should have been maintaining against its petroleum profits tax obligation. He said he does not anticipate much resistance to the idea from the bipartisan coalition members.

A top priority among lawmakers — inside or outside the coalition, is moving forward on some kind of gas pipeline deal. Wagoner warned, however, not to expect a deal this session.

“The governor has a lot of work to do to get to a point of being ready to commit to a proposal,” he said.

The coalition’s reaction when confronted by decisions that might divide members could determine how effective the Senate is in the 25th Legislature. Indeed, Wagoner suggested that that could force the House to take a stronger role.

“They may be a dominating factor this year,” he said.

Hal Spence can be reached at harold.spence@peninsulaclarion.com.

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