Lawmakers ready for special session

Next stop: Juneau

Posted: Wednesday, May 16, 2001

They're home, but not for long.

On June 7, the Kenai Peninsula's five-member legislative contingency heads back to Juneau at Gov. Tony Knowles' request. During the special session called by Knowles, the Legislature will address extending the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation's authority to regulate the disposal of waste from cruise ships operating in state waters.

In the meantime, Sens. Jerry Ward, R-Anchorage, and John Torgerson, R-Kasilof, and Reps. Ken Lancaster, R-Soldotna, Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, and Drew Scalzi, R-Homer, are taking time for family, fishing and fielding requests from constituents.

"Government gets a little messy at the end," said Ward, who is spending a few days in Nevada with family.

Ward said the biggest highlight of the first half of the 22nd Legislature was passage of a constitutional spending limit by the Senate to prevent the Legislature or the governor from spending more than was spent the previous year. A three-quarters vote of the Legislature would permit a 10 percent increase. Beyond that, a vote of the people would be required.

"That's the beginning of a long-range plan," Ward said. "Hope-fully it will pass out of the Legisla-ture next session and appear on the general election ballot."

"The vast majority of people said, 'Don't cap off the (Alaska Permanent Fund) dividend and don't give us an income tax. Get control of government first.' I think the Legislature has caught on and this is the beginning," Ward said. "It's very exciting to me. This is the long-term plan that everyone has been asking for. To me, this was by far the most important thing accomplished."

Ward pointed with pride to funding included in the capital budget for the Kenai Youth Detention Center, funding to reopen the North Road maintenance station, and his effort to expand the duties of village public safety officers to include probation and parole supervision. The presence of probation and parole officers in the state's villages would, according to Ward, allow for inmates to return to their homes rather than being released to Juneau, Anchorage or Fairbanks.

"Every 24 people we keep out of prison equals $1 million a year," Ward said. "There's no reason why we can't continue reducing the prison population and take that money and spend it on schools like we should be instead of just housing prisoners."

With reapportionment possibly severing Ward from the Kenai Peninsula, the South Anchorage legislator said he already has a residence on Nikiski's Toloff Road. Elected to the Senate in 1996, Ward signed a term limit pledge. However, he said he didn't know how binding that would be if reapportionment forced him to run for office.

"That's pretty meaningless now," he said of the pledge.

"We need a law that limits the amount of time a person can be in the Legislature, but it needs to be for everybody. The ones that believe in term limits get out, and that basically leaves the fox guarding the hen house."

Torgerson, who chairs the Senate Resources Committee, heads to Washington, D.C., on Friday to meet with the state's congressional delegation and representatives of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

"I'm mainly dealing with gas line issues," Torgerson said. "That's why they wanted me to take resources. They needed a number cruncher."

Torgerson said there are a number of benefits for the peninsula coming out of this year's session, including Kenai's youth detention facility. He wasn't so positive, however, about passage of House Bill 149, introduced by Chenault, that directs the Department of Corrections to enter into an agreement with the Kenai Peninsula Borough for the construction and operation of a medium-security private prison.

"I certainly wouldn't say that was a highlight," said Torgerson, who has consistently cautioned the borough about sole sourcing the contract to Cornell Corrections and has urged a competitive bid process.

Torgerson said the $34 million targeted for education statewide might not have been as much as he had hoped for but was "a pretty healthy number. Probably the biggest amount in the past 15 years."

Of redistricting, he said, "I'm not worried about it. We'll see what the reapportionment committee comes up with. They're doing the best they can with the laws they have."

Chenault said his major achievement was passage of the prison bill, which is currently awaiting Knowles' signature.

"I don't know yet what the governor's going to do," Chenault said. "There's been talk all the way from him vetoing it to going ahead and signing it.

Looking toward next year's agenda, Chenault said, "We'll be working on gas pipeline issues through the Oil and Gas Committee that I sit on."

He is also working on legislation to increase the penalties for possession of gamma-Hydroxybutyrate, commonly known as the "date-rape drug."

"And we're looking at dealing with some of the fishing disasters that have happened over the last few years," Chenault said. "Hopefully we can help out some of the families of our commercial fishermen."

Reapportionment has "really butchered up my district," said Chenault of plans that would add Hope, Seward, Cooper Landing and Sterling and remove Kenai and the K-Beach areas.

"If I run again, I think the conservatives of Nikiski and Sterling are to my advantage, even though I may lose votes in Seward or Homer's East End Road," Chenault said. "If I could carry those, then I could go ahead. But I might be wrong. Who knows. I'm not a politician."

Lancaster said the highlight of his first year in the House of Representative was "learning the process."

"I don't think it went too bad," he said. "I definitely have more to learn. I think the legislative process could be somewhat streamlined, but change doesn't come overnight. That's part of my challenge and part of what I said I'd try to do when I got elected, and I intend to follow through."

Lancaster will be meeting with the Fiscal Policy Caucus on May 25 to work on a long-range fiscal plan for the state. He said the group is made up of Alaskans United and some 30 legislators and hopes to "being everyone else along with us."

"We'd like to have something to introduce when we get back to Juneau," Lancaster said. "We've got to limit our spending, and that's one way to do it. School tax. Income tax. Things like that are all pieces to the plan. And I think there's consolidation and streamlining that can be done within the departments."

Lancaster said without a plan, "We're just wandering around out there like a lost boat."

Scalzi, a commercial fisher, will be on a boat of his own until the special session.

"I'm set to go fishing," said Scalzi, who is headed for the Gulf of Alaska for halibut. "We're trying to get out of here by the middle of the week."

He said the highlight of the session was the formation of the Fiscal Policy Caucus, "a bipartisan mix of folks trying to come up with some suggestions for a long-term fiscal plan."

"This is the thing that I think is the most important for the state -- coming up with a fiscal plan," said Scalzi, who has introduced two different sales tax plans. "That gives the public something to look at. Obviously, we're not going to pass two sales taxes, but the options have to be on the table."

"We really need to utilize our imagination and come up with some good sources of revenue to stop that from happening," Scalzi said. "We've been deficit spending. We can't go on like that."

Fishing-related legislation is also a high priority for Scalzi. He is working on a bill to direct the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission to issue permits for the hair crab and scallop fisheries to boats rather than individuals. Also of interest is House Bill 216, legislation to limit meetings of the Board of Fisheries. It also clarifies the Fish and Game commissioner's role in issuing emergency orders.

"The department is the one to make that decision," Scalzi said. "It's already in the regulations, but this would put it in statute so there would be no question who has the authority."

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