School deal breaks deadlock on adjournment; Governor calls special session

Posted: Wednesday, May 09, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- A deal to build and repair more schools, especially in rural Alaska, broke a Republican-Democrat budget stalemate, enabling the state Senate and House to adjourn Tuesday night.

The break will be short-lived.

Gov. Tony Knowles announced immediately afterward that he was calling a special session for May 21 so that legislators could address cruise ship pollution legislation.

Sen. John Cowdery, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, had refused to move House Bill 260, which would give the state authority to set and enforce standards for cruise ship discharges and independently monitor them.

The measure addresses wastewater, air emissions and solid waste handling and assesses a fee of roughly $1 per passenger to pay for the monitoring program.

Cowdery contends the measure could put smaller cruise ships out of business. He also said the measure could be addressed next year because major cruise lines have pledged to sign a compact promising to follow the standards for wastewater, air emissions and solid waste set out in the bill.

Knowles called the bill ''must-have'' legislation.

''The bill enjoys widespread support in the Legislature and certainly among Alaskans,'' Knowles said.

''It's unfortunate that a single senator was able to stand in the way of the majority of legislators and in effect hold this bill hostage,'' Knowles said.

The drama earlier in the evening focused on the possibility of a special session over the budget.

Senate President Rick Halford gaveled out the Senate at 11:50 p.m., 10 minutes before the midnight deadline on the 121st day of the 2001 session. House Speaker Brian Porter followed suit at 11:54 p.m. beating the deadline by six minutes.

About two hours earlier, Republicans and Democrats reached a compromise over the number of schools to build or repair.

With the additions Tuesday night, the state will pay to build three new schools, design another, and make major repairs at 32 others next year.

''The original offer was pretty spendy, but I think they're pretty happy with this,'' said Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, of Democrats in the Legislature.

Sporting buttons that said ''4-46 or Fight,'' Democrats said they would not pledge their votes for a draw on the Constitutional Budget Reserve unless Republicans agreed to build the four schools needing replacement on a list ranked by the Department of Education and Early Development. They also wanted the top 46 projects on the department's major maintenance list, or something close to it. The price tag: $127 million.

Withholding the CBR vote would almost certainly have triggered a special session.

Legislators turn to the budget reserve when projected spending outdistances projected revenue. Drawing from the reserve, one of the state's largest bank accounts, requires a three-fourths vote in both the House and Senate. Without the Democrats on board, neither the operating budget nor the capital budget could have been approved.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Senate Republicans had agreed to finance just two new schools and make major repairs at nine, and Democrats remained united in holding out for more.

Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, who was in the thick of Tuesday night's negotiations, said he was satisfied with the total.

''There was the possibility of losing the nine if there was a breakdown,'' Hoffman said.

He said Republicans would not have made concessions without the threat of the budget reserve vote.

''That is the only weapon we have,'' Hoffman said.

Halford said the compromise was more than what some in the majority wanted to spend, but all agreed repairs needed to be made.

''It's a strong effort to fund things based on the highest level of need,'' Halford said.

Even senators who voted no said the projects were needed.

''I thought that we had spent enough this year,'' said Sen. Jerry Ward, R-Anchorage, but he said he preferred to spend more to repair and replace schools than expand the size of government.

The House and Senate reached agreement Tuesday on a number of key issues of the session, including an extension of the effective date of the high school exit exam, drunk driving legislation, construction of a new Alaska Psychiatric Institute, and expanded Medicaid coverage for women with breast or cervical cancer.

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