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Tough choices remain for lawmakers

Posted: Sunday, April 23, 2000

JUNEAU (AP) -- As the Legislature takes an Easter breather a few days before its planned adjournment, a thicket of thorny disputes still stands between lawmakers and the final gavel.

Last week featured marathon sessions of the House and Senate as lawmakers rushed to pass their bills and resolutions. But the hours of open debate and back-room strategizing produced no agreements on the key issues of the session: state employee contracts, Bush power subsidies, rural school construction and money for the University of Alaska.

''There are still some major issues hanging out there,'' said Rep. John Davies, D-Fairbanks.

The sheer number of unresolved questions has thrown the Legislature's planned early adjournment date into question. A few weeks ago, leaders in the Republican majority called for an end to the session before Easter. That was later revised to the Tuesday after the holiday.

Now even the most optimistic estimate has lawmakers leaving no earlier than Wednesday, and possibly much later.

''I think May 9 is a certainty,'' joked House Speaker Brian Porter, R-Anchorage, referring to the session's mandatory ending date.

Here's a look at the status of the major outstanding pieces of the session:

State Employee Contracts

New contracts negotiated by the Knowles administration and 12 state employee unions will cost almost $25 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1, including about $13.8 million from the state's general fund.

GOP lawmakers, especially in the Republican-dominated Senate, have indicated they may try to adjourn without approving the contract increases, a move that would likely lead to a special session, a strike, or both.

Support for the contracts is stronger in the House, where lawmakers may attach the contract increases to a budget bill and dump the issue in the Senate's lap.

''Our understanding on the House side is that we're going to have an up-or-down vote on that before we leave,'' said Davies.

Senate Republican leaders have developed a less costly counterproposal to the contracts, Senate Rules Committee Chairman Tim Kelly said earlier this week. However, Administration Commissioner Bob Poe was unreceptive, saying the Legislature's only role in the negotiations is to vote yes or no on the money.

Rural Power Subsidies

The House has passed two bills designed to resolve the long-running debate on how to pay for Power Cost Equalization, the subsidy that offsets high electrical rates in the Bush. Neither bill has passed the Senate.

Half of the package -- the sale of four state-owned hydroelectric projects to a fund that would generate money for the subsidy -- has broad support.

But the other half of the proposal would transfer $100 million from the Constitutional Budget Reserve to make the endowment big enough to pay for the entire subsidy. It passed the House with the three-quarters majority required to tap the reserve, but it's unlikely the Senate will go along.

University Money

The House also approved tapping the Constitutional Budget Reserve for $206 million to replace the University of Alaska's $172 million general fund allotment and give the system a $34 million increase spread over the next two years.

But Senate Finance Committee co-chair John Torgerson doesn't like the plan, and said he won't even give it a hearing. That makes it likely that a joint House-Senate committee working out a compromise operating budget will accept the $8.5 million increase for the university included in the Senate version.

That's only half of the $16.9 million the university asked for, and the increase is structured in a way that doesn't cover areas the school has identified as basic needs.

The Capital Budget

The spending plan for road projects and other capital construction is the biggest obstacle to adjournment in a procedural sense because it's required by the state constitution. A version has been approved by the Senate, but it's still in the House Finance Committee, where it will likely be amended.

The committee's changes will hinge on the final versions of the operating budget and a bond package for construction and maintenance of schools, University of Alaska buildings and state-owned harbors, and both plans are still unfinished.

Once the amended version leaves the committee, the budget will likely take at least three days to pass the House and Senate, although a bipartisan agreement could move it along more quickly.

Bond Packages

The House and Senate have competing ideas for the bond package, which is primarily aimed at building rural schools as a way to derail a lawsuit accusing the state of providing inferior schools in the Bush.

The House has a single bill that calls for $269 million in revenue bonds backed by Alaska's share of a tobacco litigation settlement. The measures direct $165.8 million to construction or repair of public schools, $72 million to University of Alaska projects and $32 million to harbors.

The bill hasn't left the House yet, and will likely be enlarged to satisfy minority Democrats before it goes to the Senate.

However, Senate leaders don't like using the tobacco settlement to back bonds because the settlement money is currently used in the state's operating budget.

The Senate has passed two bills calling for general obligation bonds that would require approval from voters in November.

The first bill earmarks $237 million for a list of school and university projects similar to the House bill. The second measure includes the ports and harbors and $166 million in road projects.

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