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Legislature nears adjournment with deal

Posted: Wednesday, May 03, 2000

JUNEAU (AP) -- The Senate brought the Legislature to the brink of adjournment Tuesday by endowing power subsidies in the Bush, but a controversial rider attached to the package threw an acrimonious wrinkle into the session's final hours.

The Senate also passed a bond package for school construction and other capital projects. Meanwhile, the House passed the state's capital budget, prompting a cautious exchange of crucial bills in the hallway between the two chambers.

Lawmakers are scheduled to adjourn early Wednesday evening after a 24-hour waiting period before final votes on the spending bills. However, the Senate has no plans to vote on new state employee contracts, which means the regular session will quickly become a special session on the agreements.

''If they have not addressed all the issues, including contracts, we intend to call them back immediately,'' said Bob King, a spokesman for Gov. Tony Knowles.

The flurry of votes marked the consummation of a deal that will end the regular session a week early.

''Politics is the art of compromise, the art of getting to 21 and 11, and we got there,'' said Senate President Drue Pearce. Pearce, R-Anchorage, said the Republican-dominated Senate has consistently indicated it was unhappy with wage and benefit increases in the contracts.

''The Senate has said all along, 'Show us the money,''' Pearce said.

In the deal, Democrats got the rural power subsidy endowment in return for voting with majority Republicans to give the required three-quarters majority needed to tap the state's budget-balancing reserve.

''We decided we would lock in any gains we had and move on to the next issues,'' said Rep. John Davies, D-Fairbanks, who said the rural power subsidies were the centerpiece of the deal along with maintenance and building projects for the University of Alaska.

However, Democrats didn't get all they wanted. They complained that the school bond package passed over some rural schools to pay for improvements in urban districts that were much farther down the Department of Education and Early Development's priority list.

''Children are still sitting there in their boots, in their parkas, because snow is blowing in between the roof and the floor,'' said Sen. Georgianna Lincoln, D-Rampart, as she argued unsuccessfully to include more projects in the package.

Senate Finance Committee Co-Chairman John Torgerson, R-Kasilof, said the bond package includes $198 million for school construction.

''Of that $198 million, $112 million is going to rural Alaska,'' Torgerson said.

But some of the sharpest criticism of the day came from within the Republican majority during debate over a bill authorizing the sale of four state-owned hydroelectric plants to partially endow Power Cost Equalization, the subsidy that offsets high electrical rates in the Bush.

Sen. Rick Halford successfully amended the bill to include a special provision aimed at facilitating the sale of the Matanuska Telephone Cooperative to Alaska Communications Systems.

''This amendment is targeted at only one utility in the entire state,'' said Sen. Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, who is ordinarily a close ally of Halford's. ''I think this is patently unfair and wrong.''

Halford, R-Chugiak, said he wants to streamline the proposed $180 million deal.

The cooperative can only be sold with the approval of two-thirds of its members. State law also requires the cooperative to provide other potential buyers with an appraisal and put alternative proposals before its members.

Halford said the alternative proposals could gum up the sale and drive down the $180 million price of the cooperative, which would be distributed among its members. The amendment would allow the cooperative's board to opt out of the law requiring it to entertain other offers.

''There'd be a big check to the Mat-Su Borough School District, a big check to the city of Palmer, a big check to the city of Wasilla and a check for every member,'' Halford said.

The amendment passed the Senate 13-7 and the bill passed 17-3. A few hours later, the House approved the revised bill 26-14, although many lawmakers protested the 11th-hour change to such an important bill.

''The timing troubles me,'' said Rep. Eldon Mulder, R-Anchorage. ''Why now? Why didn't it go through a bill? Why are we doing legislation via hostage?''

The Senate also voted 17-3 to tap the Constitutional Budget Reserve for $100 million to give the Power Cost Equalization endowment enough money to pay the entire subsidy each year. The House had already given the required three-quarters majority for the draw.

Ending a yearly fight over paying for the subsidy was a high priority for rural lawmakers, especially Sen. Al Adams, D-Kotzebue, who is retiring this year.

''I call it Sen. Al Adams' legacy that he was able to pull that together and secure affordable power in the Bush for years to come,'' Ellis said. ''That made some of the other things easier to take.''



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