Fiscal policy caucus pushing deadline

Posted: Tuesday, February 12, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- Members of the bipartisan Fiscal Policy Caucus want work on all other legislation stopped until a long-term fiscal plan passes the House. And they want that plan over to the Senate by early March.

They've failed so far, however, in getting the Republican-led House majority caucus to agree to that goal.

House Finance Co-Chairman Eldon Mulder, R-Anchorage, said majority lawmakers are committed to moving bills to close the state's fiscal gap which have ''broad support.'' But he had no timeline, other than ''in the not-so-distant future.''

''This is one of our priorities, but it is not our only priority,'' Mulder said.

House Speaker Brian Porter, R-Anchorage, said the majority will be discussing a schedule for action this week.

Rep. Ken Lancaster, R-Soldotna, said the Fiscal Policy Caucus wants lawmakers to focus on nothing but elements of a fiscal plan -- such as income tax, sales tax, alcohol tax and Alaska Permanent Fund earnings and other bills to close a budget gap.

The goal would be to move a package through the House before March 8, when legislators are scheduled to begin a five-day break.

''We need to deal with this now,'' Lancaster said. ''We can't keep putting it off.''

Lancaster said the House needs to act early so the Senate has time to work on the package.

''We need them to have time to take a good comprehensive look at this and make the changes they're going to make,'' Lancaster said.

He said lawmakers' ''personal legislation'' could go through House committees once the fiscal plan bills are in the Senate.

He worried that far less important bills, including one he is sponsoring to allow animal shelters to buy euthanasia drugs directly from pharmaceutical companies, are getting hearings while major fiscal measures languish.

But Mulder said other important issues also face the Legislature, such as homeland security, general obligation bonds for construction projects, education spending and bridging a perceived urban-rural divide.

Fiscal Policy Caucus Co-Chairman Bill Hudson, R-Juneau, said his group has received good-faith assurances that the bills will move as soon as possible.

But he acknowledged some members are frustrated with the slow pace.

''We feel the weight of this issue, and it tends to become very frustrating,'' Hudson said. ''I feel satisfied with that progress.''

There is no guarantee the Senate will take up the measures if they pass the House.

Senate leaders have said they don't plan to act on any major tax bills or measures to spend Permanent Fund earnings until a constitutional spending limit is in place. And that will take at least a year.

Senate Majority Leader Loren Leman, R-Anchorage, was noncommittal when asked if the Senate would act on a fiscal package.

''We will be open-minded,'' Leman said. ''If the House delivers a package like that, we'll read it.''

House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage, said putting the bills in front of the Senate early would create pressure for the Senate to act.

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