22nd Legislature's accomplishments hard to find, so far

Posted: Friday, March 16, 2001

The 22nd Alaska State Legislature has been meeting since Jan. 8; that makes today the 68th day of the session.

Pop quiz: Can you name something that lawmakers have accomplished in that time? Time's up.

So far, 333 bills have been introduced; five have passed both the Senate and House. (In case you're wondering, they are House Bill 44, an act designating the Joe Redington Sr. Memorial Trail; HB 79, an act designating a portion of the Eagle River Loop as the Eagle River Veterans Memorial Highway; SB 10, an act extending the termination date of the Board of Public Accountancy; SB 53, an act extending the termination date of the Board of Barbers and Hairdressers; and SB 84, the short title of which is "public utility joint action agencies.")

Hold on to your hats. All that activity might generate a Seattle-sized earthquake with Juneau at its center.

Just for the record: Lawmakers also have introduced 40 joint resolutions, six of which have passed both houses; 15 concurrent resolutions, three of which have passed both houses; and six resolutions, all of which have passed both houses.

In addition, they've found time to discuss a bill that would boot the governor and lieutenant governor out of their offices in the Capitol and one that would move the annual legislative sessions to Anchorage. They've defended their closed door talks -- even though a citizens-dominated ethics committee has recommended opening some now closed legislative meetings.

Anyone think that's the kind of thing legislators should be spending their time on?

It's hard to know whether the inaction that has marked this legislative session so far is a good or bad thing.

As Rep. Scott Ogan, a Republican from Palmer, told an Associated Press reporter: "The fact that we're not passing many laws means people's wallets are safe for now."

OK, so we're not giving legislators the credit they deserve for all their hard work. Let's not forget 333 bills have been introduced this session -- some of them good, all of them, no doubt, well-intentioned.

In fairness, legislators are facing some big issues, and they have been talking about some of the same things that are on their constituents' minds: the high school exit exams, a natural gas pipeline from the North Slope, money to lobby for the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration, a private prison on the Kenai Peninsula.

They've even been talking about the budget and Alaska's need for a long-range fiscal plan.

Glory be.

Anybody think legislators should leave Juneau in May with a specific, long-range fiscal plan in place -- not just more ideas to discuss, not just another dog-and-money show to haul before Alaskans this summer and fall before returning to Juneau in 2002, a year that will be rife with election-year politics?

Don't get us wrong. We know thoughtful legislation requires time to craft. It should include healthy, open discussion. It doesn't happen overnight.

But let's face it. Alaskans have been talking about the need for a long-range budget plan for more than a few days now. Remember the forum in mid-March of 1999, when Kenai Peninsula residents gathered at the Kenai Senior Center to crunch budget numbers with local and state officials and suggest solutions to bridge Alaska's fiscal gap?

Things really looked bleak at that meeting. The price of oil was under $13 a barrel. Alaskans -- and lawmakers -- were motivated.

There were all kinds of charts and ideas for generating revenue -- a cap on the permanent fund dividend, a state property tax, a state sales tax, an increase in motor vehicle fuel tax, an increase in the wholesales tax on alcohol, an increase in marine fuel tax.

As the price of oil started to climb again, Alaskans and lawmakers lost their drive. A budget plan that Alaskans thought relied too heavily on earnings from the Alaska Permanent Fund was soundly defeated in an advisory vote later that year.

North Slope crude prices closed at $24.01 a barrel Thursday. With a price like that, it's easy to believe the state has a financial cushion and there's no urgency to get a long-range plan in place.

These are the kinds of times that test the mettle of lawmakers. Without financial ruin looming, can lawmakers muster the courage to do what needs to be done and not just talk about it? Or will it take a disaster -- like the plunge in oil prices -- to get some action?

If Alaska is going to move forward, lawmakers need to set a fiscally sound course for the state.'s future. Not next year, but now. Today.

What's left to talk about?

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