Inaction marks first half of legislative session

Posted: Thursday, March 08, 2001

JUNEAU -- With this year's legislative session half over, the Legislature has completed work on just three bills -- they've renamed two roads and re-established the Board of Public Accountancy.

The first half of any legislative session tends to be slow, but lawmakers say this year has been unusually sluggish.

''If it got much slower, it would stop entirely,'' Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage, said.

House Majority Leader Jeannette James, R-North Pole, agrees it's been calm. But the number of public opinion messages, e-mails and calls is also down, which indicates to her citizens aren't clamoring for action.

Still, she said, lawmakers haven't been slacking.

''We've been working intently on the budget. That's mostly where the focus has been,'' James said.

Committees are also wrestling with what to do about the high school exit exam and the problem of repeat drunken drivers, and what role, if any, the Legislature should play in possible development of a natural gas pipeline.

The House Finance Committee will start taking testimony on the operating budget Thursday. It's expected to be ready for a vote on the House floor next week, which James said would be one of the earliest votes on the budget she can recall.

The committee tentatively proposed an increase of about $27 million in general fund spending, which leaders said would keep programs basically at a status quo. That's about $56 million less than the operating budget proposed by Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Lawmakers will also decide how much to spend on construction projects. Gov. Tony Knowles proposed a $127 million bond package for building and fixing schools and a six-year $425 million plan to improve roads and build ferries.

Budget leaders in the Republican-led Legislature have expressed some support for the proposals but questioned some of the details, and House Finance Committee Co-Chairman Eldon Mulder, R-Anchorage, said he's concerned about overheating the economy.

During the second half of the session the pace is expected to pick up on a couple of other big issues.

House and Senate committees are having hearings this week on the high school graduation exam. State law requires students starting with the class of 2002 to pass the test to receive a diploma, but high failure rates after the initial testing prompted Gov. Tony Knowles to call for a four-year delay in the effective date.

Many lawmakers are reluctant to do that and are now looking at several alternative proposals -- such as delaying the test two years, letting students who fail receive a diploma based on grades and recommendations or removing the requirement altogether.

''We'll get some resolution of the exit exam for sure,'' James said.

After a series of high-profile fatal drunken driving accidents last year, many legislators also want to do something about repeat drunken drivers. So far, a bill that, among other things, stiffens fines and sentences for repeat offenders has cleared just one House committee.

Lawmakers have also spent a lot of time talking about the possibility of a natural gas pipeline from the North Slope to the Lower 48.

They've seen presentations from major oil producers who are studying whether such a project is economically viable. They've also heard from backers of alternative proposals to ship North Slope gas in a liquefied form to Asia.

But so far no gas line legislation has passed a single committee.

''To learn is the most important thing right now,'' Senate Resources Chairman John Torgerson said. ''We need to educate ourselves, we need to educate the public.''

Torgerson, R-Kasilof, said he isn't planning any major gas line legislation now since the gas producers haven't made a decision on whether to build a pipeline, and if so, when and along what route.

''It's really hard to pass legislation until you know the particulars of what you're doing,'' Torgerson said.

Minority lawmakers say the Legislature needs to tackle other issues this session, too -- coming up with a long-range fiscal plan and working to bring the state into compliance with federal law on subsistence hunting and fishing.

''We have a lot of issues out there that we haven't talked about and probably won't talk about,'' said Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau.

But some lawmakers say not doing much is just fine.

''Actually, I think that's good,'' said Rep. Scott Ogan, R-Palmer. ''The fact that we're not passing many laws means people's wallets are safe for now.''

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