House, Senate still at odds on budget

Posted: Sunday, April 17, 2011

JUNEAU -- House and Senate leaders remained at odds over a state capital budget, with the main sticking point being contingency language that the GOP-led House considers unconstitutional.

The big question seemed to be whether the Legislature would stay past today. While the state constitution allows for 121-day sessions, state law, stemming from a 2006 voter referendum, sets a 90-day limit, and House leaders have said they're loath to violate the will of the people.

If the House wants to leave without passing a capital budget, it could, but it couldn't be gone for more than three days unless the Senate agreed. The House also could tell Gov. Sean Parnell that it cannot agree with the Senate on an adjournment timetable, letting Parnell set the adjournment time and decide whether to call lawmakers back for a special session on unresolved issues.

There's a litany right now, from state spending plans for this year and next, to a coastal management program at risk of disappearing if it's not extended, and a major piece of Parnell's legislative agenda: performance scholarships.

House Speaker Mike Chenault wouldn't say which direction his caucus was leaning but said the caucus was "solid."

Parnell spokeswoman Sharon Leighow said any decision on the need for a special session depends on how much work the Legislature completes before Sunday night.

Chenault said the only bill the Legislature must pass is an operating budget, and he said the House and Senate were "pretty close" to coming to terms. It's the capital budget where progress has been slow, if that.

The Senate Finance Committee this past week proposed a $2.9 billion capital budget, with an emphasis on school construction and energy projects, as well as savings. But it also included contingency language: The bill includes $465 million in energy projects, but those are to move together as a package, all or nothing; it also makes $100 million of the governor's projects contingent upon the year-to-date average price of North Slope oil exceeding a whopping $150 a barrel on Oct. 1.

Committee co-chair Bert Stedman said the Legislature's lawyers have said there's nothing wrong with the language; he's noted, repeatedly, that the legislators are the appropriators and he said the energy language is to ensure that projects around the state are funded in an attempt to implement the state's energy policy in a meaningful way.

The provision related to Parnell's projects is to provide "a little insurance" that there will be adequate revenue to cover them, he said.

"The world won't end if they aren't done," he said, adding, though that the Legislature could lower the trigger next year to fund them, if needed.

But Parnell's administration, which sought an opinion from the Department of Law, and House GOP leaders worry the language creates separation of powers issues and interferes with governor's veto authority.

While Stedman said everything's negotiable, he said this is one area where the Senate's holding firm. So is the House.

"It's a process problem," Chenault said, adding his belief that if the House agrees to the language, it's agreeing the governor "shouldn't have veto power."

Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, put it another way, saying the budget holds the governor's office hostage, and "the House is the hostage rescue team."

Chenault said that if the contingency language disappeared, "it would be like a dam breaking."

Even if it the breakthrough were immediate, it would still put the Legislature in the final hours of its scheduled 90-day run. One of the biggest complaints the House has had is that it hasn't had time to hold public hearings on the bill because nothing final has been sent over from the Senate yet. There are complaints, too, that the Senate has dragged its feet while the House has passed bills it considers priorities, even if those bills, like Parnell's plan to cut oil taxes, have stalled.

"I don't have any problem with standing up and talking to Alaskans and saying, 'We made the best attempt we could,'" Chenault said. "We put together an operating budget; we're waiting on a capital budget, we haven't received it as of yet. I think we've done the people's work.

"We've addressed a number of issues, from oil taxes to ACMP, education," Chenault said, with ACMP referring to the coastal management program that the Senate is scheduled to hear as early as Sunday following the passage of a bill by the House early Saturday. "I think the House has done the job that the people have sent them down here to do."

Stedman has sought agreement on the size and structure of the capital bill before advancing it from his committee. He said he doesn't know when one will emerge but said there's no animosity between the sides.

He said his committee planned to continue work -- on other business, as well -- while the Legislature was still here.

The committee on Saturday released a schedule through Tuesday.

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