House and Senate position for deal to end special session

Posted: Sunday, May 19, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- Lawmakers worked Saturday to position a school construction bond bill and other measures so they act quickly if a deal is struck to end the Legislature's special session.

The Legislature on Satuday was in its second day of special session trying to strike a deal on a $200 million bond package for school construction and other issues to aid Bush Alaska.

The Legislature's regular session was to end Tuesday, but lawmakers extended it for two days when minority Democrats and the GOP majority could not reach agreement. When that period ended with still no deal, they called themselves into a special session.

Now legislative leaders on both sides say they are confident that a compromise can be found soon to seal the deal on a $2.3 billion fiscal 2003 budget and return home.

''What we are going to do is get back to that point where we were 36 hours ago, and I think we can move quite expeditiously from that point,'' Rep. Eldon Mulder, R-Anchorage, said Saturday. ''We were fairly close to having a reasonable compromise from both sides.''

Mulder, who is co-chairman of the House Finance Committee, is one of the House Republican majority's chief negotiators.

Much of Saturday was spent getting legislation poised so that when a deal is struck, it can be sent to Gov. Tony Knowles quickly.

The House approved a measure that reauthorizes the Regulatory Commission of Alaska to June 30, 2006. Now the House must strike a compromise in the Senate, where the measure is opposed. Knowles threatened another special session if a vote on the matter isn't held.

The House also approved a general obligation bond package that would fund construction and maintenance at 11 rural schools.

Democrats want more schools on the list and a commitment that future rural school construction won't go ignored. If approved, the measure would go before the voters in November.

A municipal bond reimbursement plan that could require the state to pay for up to 70 percent of some urban school projects was also approved in the House.

The Senate approved a bill to allow veterans to occupy some of the empty beds in the state's system of Pioneers' Homes. It would change the name to the Alaska Pioneers' and Veterans' Homes and allow federal per diem paid to some veterans to be used to make up shortfalls in funding the homes.

Knowles has also threatened a special session if that legislation is not approved.

The Republican majority approved a $2.3 billion general fund operating budget for fiscal 2003 that spends $23 million in one-time grants to schools.

Democrats wanted that money put into the school foundation formula because it distributes a greater share to rural areas because of the high cost there. Republicans have offered up $6 million more for education but have not committed to put it in the formula.

House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage, said Democrats' push this special session will be to head off what they say is unequal funding for Bush Alaska in an urban-dominated Legislature.

''We want to make sure there are some kind of structural changes in place, or at least on the launch pad, so we can have some assurances that some of the systemic problems of the state are going to be solved,'' Berkowitz said.

A key element of striking a deal will be to find a compromise on those issues without dramatically increasing state spending.

Republicans have made budget cuts a cornerstone of this legislative session as the state faces an anticipated $963 million shortfall in its fiscal 2003 budget.

Past shortfalls have been made up from the state's Constitutional Budget Reserve. But that requires a three-fourths vote in both houses, which Republicans cannot get without Democrat support.

Democrats -- whose priority issues have largely been the victim of Republican cuts -- are holding out for more money for education, veterans issues and a program that provides energy subsidies to high-cost rural areas.

Senate Republicans -- who have blocked more funding for the state's school funding formula and a formula for long-term rural school construction funding -- say they won't tolerate an end-of-session deal that drives up state spending.

''There's a limit to what we will stomach,'' said Sen. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole.

Lawmakers are also considering a measure to put a constitutional amendment before voters in November to resolve the subsistence debate.

Much of the activity on Saturday centered around striking a budget deal. Mulder said the House -- which has approved a subsistence amendment in past years to comply with federal law requiring a rural preference -- will wait for the measure to be passed out of the Senate.

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