Legislature asks to adjourn amid impasse

Posted: Monday, April 18, 2011

JUNEAU -- The Alaska House and Senate, at an impasse over state spending plans, late Sunday asked the governor to step in and immediately end the legislative session.

Sunday marked the session's 90th day. That's the limit set out in law following a voter initiative. But the constitution let the Legislature meet for 121 days. Given that the Legislature hasn't resolved major issues -- including state spending plans for this year and next -- the Senate had been prepared to keep working.

But Sen. Lyman Hoffman said the House wouldn't meet to hash out an operating budget. The House, meanwhile, has complained repeatedly that the Senate wouldn't send it a capital budget to work on amid a dispute over language in the bill.

If the governor intervenes, he'd call a special session.

"We'll see which way we go here in an hour or two or three," House Speaker Mike Chenault said earlier in the day. "We're treating this like the end of 90 days" -- with the House Finance Committee working on one more bill it had in its possession -- while "I think (the Senate is) treating it like the start of 120 days."

The biggest sticking point in the budget battle is contingency language in the multibillion-dollar capital budget that packages statewide energy projects as an all-or-nothing deal and ties $100 million worth of the governor's projects to the price of oil.

Sen. Bert Stedman considers the language in keeping with the Legislature's role as the appropriating body; he said the energy language is an attempt to begin implementing the state's energy policy in a meaningful way and the oil-price provision to ensure there's adequate revenue to cover those projects.

But House leaders consider it inappropriate, if not an infringement upon Parnell's veto authority, and have refused to sign off.

While both sides consider other aspects of the bill negotiable, neither is willing to budge his position on that issue.

It's not the only outstanding issue; there are state operating and supplemental spending plans that still have to be settled and a coastal management program in danger of disappearing if it's not extended.

Stedman has refused to advance the capital budget from his Senate Finance Committee before there's agreement with House leaders on its size and structure; besides the intent language, Stedman wants agreement on the size of the overall budget as well as some of the key pieces.

The $2.9 billion spending plan unveiled by the committee last Monday had an emphasis on school construction and energy projects, as well as savings. Members of the House had objected to clearing the entire K-12 maintenance backlog at once, as the Senate wanted, and $465 million for energy -- again, seeing it as a lot to bite off at once.

Stedman said he's fine with lowering those levels and with dropping the size of the budget that passes from the Senate to $2.7 billion, to give the House room to add projects of their own. Parnell has said he'd allow a $2.8 billion capital budget, a level that many lawmakers invoke as the point they want to stay around. But that limit was contingent upon passage of a bill to address oil taxes. Parnell said that if such a bill didn't pass -- and it won't this session -- that he expected to cut capital spending. By how much, he hasn't said publicly.

House and Senate leadership have engaged in periodic talks on the capital budget but keep getting caught up on what Chenault calls the trigger language. Stedman insists the language isn't an in-your-face response to the governor, who has characterized the Senate as "do nothing" for failing to pass his oil tax cut bill.

"We're frugal," he said of the oil-price provision, which makes $100 million of Parnell's projects contingent upon the year-to-date average price of North Slope oil exceeding an eye-popping $150 a barrel on Oct. 1.

In pending spending bills, the Senate has proposed putting at least $1.5 billion in budget reserves.

The Senate traditionally takes the lead in crafting the capital budget, though the governor releases his spending proposal -- the starting point for the ultimate legislative version -- to both chambers at the same time.

Usually, once the Senate is done, the House reviews the bill and adds to it. But Chenault, in a rare, rousing floor speech that Stedman chalked up to theater, said the Senate's tactics showed disrespect to the House and to the legislative process, leaving it with little or no time to hold hearings before the Legislature hit its 90-day legal limit to meet.

That was Thursday.

If Parnell calls a special session, he'd set the agenda. Among the unresolved issues, besides the budgets and coastal management: a merit scholarship program, one of his legislative priorities.

An operating budget is perhaps the one thing the Legislature really needs to pass. Some on the House side, though, consider their passage of a version of a bill as sufficient for meeting their obligation to pass a bill.

The conference committee set up to hash out differences between House and Senate versions has only met twice publicly, one of those a mere get-to-know-you meeting. As of late Sunday afternoon, no additional meetings had been scheduled. Conference chairman, Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines, said there would be no meeting Sunday.

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