Legislature's early adjournment getting later

Posted: Monday, April 17, 2000

JUNEAU (AP) -- Legislative leaders' plan to adjourn before Easter has been pushed back a few days because of a disagreement over capital construction bonds and a constitutional concern over when voters would decide on two ballot iniatives.

The Legislature's Republican leaders had planned to adjourn by the end of this week, more than two weeks before the mandatory end of the 121-day session on May 9. But Senate President Drue Pearce said Sunday that the new target is April 25, the Tuesday after Easter.

''The last day we put bills on the floor will be Thursday,'' said Pearce, R-Anchorage. ''That should give us an opportunity for a very orderly adjournment.''

Part of the delay stems from one of the session's biggest issues -- money for rural school construction. A pending lawsuit accuses the Legislature of violating the state constitution and federal civil rights law by providing substandard schools in the Bush.

The House and Senate are considering separate $269.5 million bond packages to repair and build schools, but they're divided over how to pay off the bonds.

Senate Bill 310 calls for general obligation bonds, which would require the approval of voters in the November election.

House Bill 281 proposes using revenue bonds guaranteed with income expected from Alaska's share of the settlement with tobacco companies. Rep. Eldon Mulder, co-chairman of the House Finance Committee, says using tobacco money could get money to schools quicker.

But many Senators object to using money that is currently spent in the state's operating budget, mostly on programs within the Department of Health and Social Services.

''We're already using those dollars,'' Pearce said. ''It's going to leave a large whole in the budget.''

General obligation bonds would increase the budget as debt payments kick in, but a statewide vote would give lawmakers approval for that new spending.

Also, rural lawmakers have said neither bond proposal earmarks enough for school construction. Their dissatisfaction could prompt minority Democrats to block an early adjournment.

Pearce also said lawmakers are concerned about a constitutional provision that would apparently put two ballot initiatives on the ballot at the Aug. 22 primary election instead of the general election in November.

The constitution requires a vote on ballot initiatives at the first general election that occurs more than 120 days after the Legislature adjourns. If lawmakers adjourn before Easter, the primary would be the first such election.

Voters will decide on initiatives capping property taxes at 10 mills and re-legalizing marijuana. Pearce said lawmakers don't want to be seen as interfering with the initiatives by scheduling them for the primary, which will likely draw fewer voters than the general election.

The Senate may also disagree with big spending bills for the University of Alaska and rural power subsidies that were approved by the House on Saturday. The measures would take $306 million from the Constitutional Budget Reserve, including $134 million in new spending.

That doesn't fit well with Republicans' plans for cutting the state's general fund budget by $30 million this year.

''We're still trying to figure out how it fits into the $30 million spending reduction,'' said Senate Finance Committee Co-Chairman Sean Parnell, R-Anchorage. ''I'm not going to give it a resounding yes at this point.''

By scheduling a cutoff on votes on bills after Thursday, Pearce is allowing for the maximum three days a bill can be kept on the floor by dissenting lawmakers. Theoretically that means all bills slated for passage this session will have been approved by the House and Senate by the end of the April 24 floor session.

That would leave April 25 free for crucial concurrence votes, in which Senators decide whether to accept changes to their bills made by the House and vice-versa. Such votes often seal compromises on budget bills and other high-profile legislation included in a session-ending deal.

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