Governor asks for voluntary special session

Posted: Thursday, May 13, 2004

JUNEAU -- Gov. Frank Murkowski is asking lawmakers to voluntarily return to a special session and again take up a raft of his bills that died when the Legislature finished its business.

But he decided against issuing an order that forces lawmakers back to work on a plan that plugs the state's chronic budget deficits.

''I don't want to have a special session and go to the cost of it if we don't have the support of trying to resolve these issues,'' Murkowski said Wednesday.

A 30-day special session would cost the state about $25,000 per day but holds no guarantee Murkowski would get what he wants.

GOP leaders said they anticipate there is enough support to return to work, but it is unclear what parts of Murkowski's agenda they will take up.

''The initial reaction I heard was 'yes' and 'heck yes,''' said House Speaker Pete Kott, R-Eagle River.

The Legislature ended its election-year session Tuesday at midnight, approving a massive $82 million hike in spending for Alaska public schools.

But lawmakers left on the table the thorny issue of whether voters should be asked to tap the $28 billion Alaska Permanent Fund to close budget deficits that have averaged $400 million a year.

Murkowski wanted a constitutional amendment on the permanent fund that would have given the Legislature permission to split about $1.3 billion annually between dividends to eligible Alaskans and government.

At the same time, Murkowski wanted a constitutional amendment to limit state spending. Both measures would have been before Alaska voters in November.

But high oil prices, a healthy $2 billion balance in the state's Constitutional Budget Reserve and anger from Democrats over a ''permanent fund-only'' budget fix helped derail the measure in the Senate.

The state relies on oil for more than 80 percent of its revenues and prices are expected to average $31.13 per barrel in the fiscal year ending June 30, according to the state Department of Revenue.

Murkowski warned ''what goes up can come down'' and a budget deficit that is all but erased this year could climb if prices bottom out.

''My concern here is that as we revel in the sunshine here today and the euphoria of high oil prices that we are leaving a good deal of exposure to the whims of OPEC,'' Murkowski said during a news conference on the lawn of the governor's residence.

But GOP lawmakers left more on the table than a fiscal fix, abandoning three key bills Murkowski called ''must have'' legislation before leaving.

Among those are a rewrite of the dispute process involved in Workers' Compensation claims and the state Human Rights Commission.

In addition, Murkowski proposed a $1 per pack hike in the cigarette tax, along with a boost in the tax on other tobacco products from 75 percent to 100 percent of the wholesale cost.

The Senate agreed, but House Finance Co-chair Bill Williams, R-Saxman, insisted on a three-year phase in.

It was a curious end to a tobacco tax hike that was opposed by key GOP leaders but enjoyed widespread support from rank-and-file lawmakers.

Senate President Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, voted against it and Kott also was critical of the so-called ''sin tax.''

Murkowski attributed the death of his tobacco tax to heavy lobbying efforts against it.

''I think you will find all the major tobacco companies were very active in this issue,'' the governor said.

If Murkowski had called lawmakers into a mandatory special session, lawmakers could only take up the work set out by the governor.

If legislative leaders find two-thirds support to call themselves back into special session, they can take up any issue they choose.

''We're ready to go for a special session any time,'' said House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage.

Speaker Kott and Therriault said they anticipate sticking to a short list of issues that the Legislature can approve.

It would be a waste of time for lawmakers to return to a special session, in Anchorage or Juneau, to take up legislation that has no hope of passing, Kott said.

Neither GOP leader gave an indication of when the special session could begin.

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