Disaster bill passes Legislature for second time

Posted: Tuesday, February 29, 2000

JUNEAU (AP) -- A bill aimed at limiting the governor's power to spend money on disasters has passed the Legislature for the second time, but the much-revised measure's future is still uncertain.

The eighth version of Senate Bill 101 passed the House 22-14 on Monday, but Gov. Tony Knowles has not decided whether or not to veto the measure, said Pat Pourchot, Knowles' legislative director.

Although the bill no longer places strict limitations on disaster declarations, Pourchot said, it could create confusion about what powers the governor has in a crisis.

''It's not an area where we can afford to have confusion,'' Pourchot said.

The bill began nearly a year ago as a response to Knowles' 1998 decision to send $8 million to Western Alaska villagers hurt by poor salmon runs. Some in the Republican-controlled Legislature said Knowles was abusing the disaster laws to prop up the region during a normal downturn in fish returns.

Rep. Eldon Mulder, the chairman of the House Finance Committee, last week threatened to recover the money from next year's budget if Knowles vetoes the bill.

The administration contended the fish runs had been caused by weather conditions.

The Legislature approved the disaster money -- which had already been spent -- only on the condition that SB 101 passed.

Then the Senate passed a version limiting disasters to a specific lists of events that excluded poor fish runs.

The House passed a more permissive version that inserted the words ''such as'' before the Senate's list. Believing that the ''such as'' allowed enough freedom to handle any disasters that might occur, Knowles removed his objection to the bill.

Then the Senate refused to accept the House's changes, and a compromise version was worked out in a joint conference committee -- retaining the crucial phrase ''such as.'' That version passed the House unanimously, but it never reached Knowles.

Because of an error by the conference committee, the measure would have required an automatic special session of the Legislature every time the governor declared a disaster, so the Senate never transmitted it to Knowles. Instead, lawmakers took back their votes last month and sent the bill to yet another joint committee.

But when the bill came up for its first vote in the House last week, minority Democrats' support had evaporated because the disaster money was no longer at stake. Majority Republicans fell one vote short because a key member was absent.

The majority was at full strength on Monday, so the measure passed.

The final version of the bill doesn't change the process by which a declaration of an economic disaster is approved. It does require additional reporting from the administration to lawmakers about where disaster relief money is coming from, how much state money gets matched by federal funds and how long a disaster is expected to drain state resources.

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