House stalls disaster bill

Posted: Thursday, February 24, 2000

JUNEAU (AP) -- The tortuous trip of a bill limiting the governor's power to spend money on disasters ground to a halt in the House on Wednesday amid accusations of betrayal and threats of retribution.

Senate Bill 101 failed by one vote as the House's minority Democrats and five Republicans banded together in a makeshift coalition to block it. The measure comes up for a vote again on Friday, when Rep. Ramona Barnes, R-Anchorage -- a likely yes vote -- is expected back.

The latest roadblock is only the latest chapter in the bill's weird progress through the Legislature, but it highlights important changes in the House's power structure.

The measure began last year as a Republican response to Gov. Tony Knowles' decision to send millions in disaster aid to Western Alaska villagers hurt by poor salmon returns. In its early form, the bill would have sharply limited the events that qualify as disasters.

Later, lawmakers watered down the measure and attached it to the disaster money in a sort of legislative daily double -- if the bill doesn't pass, the administration doesn't get approval to spend the money.

Knowles removed his opposition, and the House passed the measure 40-0. But it was never sent to Knowles for a signature because lawmakers had mistakenly required an automatic special session of the Legislature each time the governor declares a disaster.

On the first day of this year's session, lawmakers took back their votes, and sent the measure to a joint committee to fix the error.

But when the bill came up for a vote on Wednesday, House Democrats' support had evaporated, prompting Republican leaders to accuse the minority of bargaining in bad faith.

''When the money has been improperly expended, suddenly the minority is much less willing,'' House Finance Committee Co-Chairman Eldon Mulder fumed. Mulder, R-Anchorage, said Republicans would try to take the disaster money back from next year's budget if the bill does not pass.

Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz bristled at Mulder's promise.

''I don't respond well to threats,'' said Berkowitz, D-Anchorage. ''Nobody ever made a deal with me.''

Although Berkowitz called the bill ''innocuous,'' he said Democrats support had cooled over the interim because the measure shortens the list of events considered disasters.

''Money was no longer held hostage for disasters that were already in place,'' Berkowitz said. ''The funds were released and I had a chance to review this bill.''

While Mulder believes the vote Wednesday is a prelude to a Knowles veto the majority could not override, the Democratic governor's spokesman played down that possibility.

''Last year we said that we would sign that bill,'' said Bob King, Knowles' press secretary, who refused to categorically rule out a veto. ''I don't see that anything has changed.''

Along with the main Republican-Democrat conflict, the vote also showed the trouble-making potential of four dissident Republicans who split from the majority last year.

While the four would ordinarily have supported the bill, they voted against it Wednesday to make an unrelated point. Rep. Scott Ogan, R-Palmer, would not discuss what that point was.

''It has to do with some internal issues within the Legislature,'' Ogan said.

Without the four, the majority's advantage in the House can be razor-thin. In Wednesday's vote, Barnes' absence and Aniak Republican Carl Morgan's no vote turned the tide. Although a member of the majority, some of Morgan's rural constituents were hurt by the low salmon runs.

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