Legislature's session could end by Easter

Posted: Monday, April 03, 2000

JUNEAU -- The Legislature's Republican leaders are preparing for an early adjournment, but getting out of Juneau before the session's mandatory end in May is harder than just making a ferry reservation.

The 21st Alaska Legislature is scheduled to wrap up its 121-day session May 9, but leaders in the House and Senate say they're on schedule to leave before Easter, more than two weeks early.

''While there's a lot of work to be done, there's no reason why we couldn't adjourn early,'' said Senate President Drue Pearce, R-Anchorage.

The only thing the Legislature absolutely has to do before the final gavel falls is approve a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The biggest of the budget bills -- the operating budget -- is scheduled for a vote in the Senate this week, about three weeks earlier than last year. The House passed its version of the operating budget last month.

Along with the budget, the GOP majority's other priority legislation is also moving through the Legislature quickly enough to adjourn before April 23, Pearce said.

In an election year, adjourning early has a number of attractions aside from escaping the capital city's rainy isolation.

n It would save hundreds of thousands of dollars by eliminating the daily expense of the Legislature's operations, a potent campaign issue for budget-concious Republicans.

n Lawmakers facing tough re-election fights could turn their attention to raising money and planning their campaigns

n It would lend weight to proposals to shorten the session permanently. Legislation to shorten the session by a month or more is pending in both the House and the Senate.

''There's been a couple of bills and a lot of speculation about a shorter session,'' said House Speaker Brian Porter, R-Anchorage. ''I think this would be a good opportunity to put it to the test without the requirement of having it under the gun.''

However, adjourning the Legislature is usually a complex deal involving dozens of bills, budget compromises and outright vote-buying.

The final piece of that deal is usually a vote to tap the Constitutional Budget Reserve, a savings account used to cover the gap between the state's spending and its general revenue.

Getting into that account requires a three-quarters majority of both the House and the Senate, a requirement that gives individual lawmakers -- including minority Democrats -- significant bargaining power.

House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz said its too early to tell whether the minority would cooperate in an effort to go home early.

''Its a tacit acknowledgment by the majority that they really don't have much of an agenda and are willing to be remembered for doing nothing,'' said Berkowitz, D-Anchorage. ''So long as we take care of the state's pressing needs, an early adjournment helps us with our prime directive ... Which is to do no harm.''

When the clock is ticking toward midnight on the final day, and lawmakers face the prospect of their bills dying with the session, the pressure to make a deal builds.

But without a deadline, those who haven't yet gotten what they want will have the option of stalling. If enough unhappy lawmakers stall, the early adjournment could melt away like slush under Juneau rain.

Among the issues many lawmakers may be still be unhappy with three weeks from now: the level of state funding for the University of Alaska, a source of money for rural power subsidies, and what's shaping up to be the stickiest issue of the session -- state employee contracts.

New contracts negotiated by Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles and the state employee unions call for big pay and benefit increases. The Republican-controlled Legislature rejected smaller increases last year, and the contracts don't fit into the majority's plans to cut the budget this year.

Pearce and Porter say its too early to tell what the majority will do with the contracts. But both say one possible scenario involves lawmakers adjourning without earmarking money to pay the increases.

Even if a three-quarters majority could be mustered for such a strategy, it could prompt Knowles to call a special session to deal with the contracts and avert a possible strike.

From a political standpoint, forcing Knowles to call a special session would put the added costs of the contract squarely on his shoulders. And by adjourning early, the special session could be held immediately in the time normally allotted for the regular session, avoiding added expense.

A spokesman for Knowles wouldn't say whether the governor would immediately call a special session, but said he would look at whatever options are available to convince lawmakers to pay for the contract increases.

''Funding the state employee contracts is one of their responsibilities this session,'' said Bob King, Knowles' press secretary. ''I don't think they get any bragging rights for adjourning early if they leave work like that undone.''

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