Legislature celebrates midway point with extra-long weekend

Posted: Friday, March 10, 2000

JUNEAU (AP) -- At the halfway point of its 121-day session, the Alaska Legislature is celebrating with an extra-long weekend.

The Senate adjourned Thursday after a brief session and won't return until next Wednesday. The House had already adjourned on Wednesday, and many members were already gone.

In the first 60 days of the 121-day session, lawmakers have passed only six bills, and four resolutions, including a measure authorizing a six-day break. However, most significant legislation does not pass both the House and Senate until just before the end of the session.

Minority Democrats criticized the break, saying the Republicans who control the Legislature had failed to accomplish anything meaningful.

''There seems to be paralysis within the majority,'' said House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage, who called on the majority to deal with long-term problems despite the high oil prices that have eased pressure on the state's finances.

Republican leaders dismissed the notion that their progress has been sluggish. Both Senate President Drue Pearce and House Finance Committee Co-Chairman Eldon Mulder pointed out that the House plans to consider the operating budget next week, nearly a month earlier than it did last year.

''We've got a very aggressive schedule,'' said Pearce, R-Anchorage. ''We frankly could leave before Easter. I don't think you can call us a do-nothing Legislature.''

The Legislature normally takes a break at this time of year to let a few lawmakers travel to Washington to attend a meeting of the Energy Council, a group of oil-producing states. This year's break is longer, Pearce said, because lawmakers don't plan to take a long weekend for Easter.

The holiday falls unusually late this year, and legislative leaders don't want to leave town so close to the end of the session.

Mulder, R-Anchorage, stopped short of promising an early adjournment, but said he was trying to push the budget through early this year to leave lawmakers time to consider critical issues.

''I want to move the budget along earlier than usual,'' said Mulder, R-Anchorage. ''It tends to clutter up the end of the session. You end up doing a patchwork job on the other issues.''

Mulder did concede that there was little likelihood that lawmakers would agree on a long-term fix for the state's budget gap. The recent surge in oil prices has narrowed the gap between state spending and normal revenue, which comes mostly from oil.

In an election year, that takes pressure off lawmakers to close the gap using politically dangerous measures such as an income tax, a state sales tax or the earnings of the Permanent Fund. Mulder said he expected discussions of those ideas would continue.

However, the second half of the session likely won't be quiet or uneventful. As the Republican majority tries to continue its budget-cutting policy, they'll encounter strong appeals to spend more money -- even from within their own ranks.

The majority hopes to cut spending from the state's general fund by $30 million compared to the current year. To reach that number, they will actually have to cut about $70 million to make up for programs such as Medicaid that increase automatically.

Meanwhile the Legislature must cope with three expensive and politically sensitive problems:

--Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle want more money for the University of Alaska.

--Rural legislators are pushing for a permanent way to pay for the subsidies that offset high electrical costs in the Bush now that the Power Cost Equalization Fund has virtually run dry.

--Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles has negotiated new state employee contracts that call for nearly $23 million in pay and benefit increases, agreements many Republican lawmakers will likely oppose.

Taken together, the majority's budget-cutting agenda and the demand for more money seem headed for a collision course. Finding a way to avoid that crash will likely occupy much of the Legislature's time between now and May 9, when the gavel is scheduled to fall on the 21st Legislature for the last time.

''Every session teeters on the verge of successful completion or train wreck,'' Mulder said.

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