Lawmakers reach compromise with Democrats, Knowles calls special session

Posted: Monday, May 20, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- Legislative leaders on Sunday reached a compromise on several rural issues that stood in the way of approving a fiscal 2003 budget.

But the Legislature -- which was thrust into an unprecedented extended session and then a special session to resolve the issues -- was not able to avoid another meltdown.

Gov. Tony Knowles called lawmakers into a third special session to take up veterans bills he favors and to reauthorize the state agency that regulates utilities.

Knowles had earlier called a special session to consider putting a constitutional amendment before voters to settle the intractable subsistence debate.

The Democrat governor had threatened the GOP-controlled Legislature with a special session if lawmakers take no action on the veterans measures and on a bill extending the state's utility regulatory agency.

Both bills were being held in committees where the chairmen have voiced opposition to moving them to the floor for a full vote.

''I insist that there be a vote,'' Knowles said Sunday. ''It's not right that that be decided by one person holding it in a committee.''

One measure would create the Alaska Pioneers' and Veterans' Homes and allow veterans to be housed in the state facilities with senior citizens. House State Affairs Chairman John Coghill, R-North Pole, waived the bill to its next committee after Knowles announcement.

The other bill would extend the sunset date for the Regulatory Commission of Alaska and is in the Senate Judiciary Committee awaiting a hearing. That committee is chaired by Sen. Robin Taylor, R-Wrangell, a sharp critic of the agency.

The special session is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. on Monday or when the Legislature ends its work.

Before adjourning late Sunday, lawmakers approved a capital budget along with a compromise deal on school construction projects aimed at winning support of both urban and rural lawmakers.

The Legislature approved a $236 million general obligation bond package that includes 13 rural schools that are in line for construction, maintenance or design funds.

The bond package, the first floated in the state in 20 years, must go before voters in November for approval.

Lawmakers also approved a municipal bond reimbursement plan aimed at urban schools which would pay up to 70 percent of the cost of school construction in some cases. That plan would expire in two years, under the deal worked out.

In addition, another $6 million in one-time grants to schools statewide was added to next year's spending levels and rural schools that receive less in new per-pupil enrollees would get $1.5 million to offset the shortfall.

Democrats -- who had pushed for more money for education programs affecting Bush Alaska -- hailed the deal as a success. House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage, said Democrats were able to ensure rural schools received more than they otherwise would have.

''What we did here was affect the debate and at least arrest the growing inequities within rural and urban Alaska,'' Berkowitz said.

Republicans hold a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Legislature but don't have enough votes to balance the state's budget, as required by the constitution, without Democrat support.

Democrats held off on lending their support for a three-quarters vote to access the state's Constitutional Budget Reserve until lawmakers increased funding for such rural programs.

They also got more money to protect the endowment that funds power subsidies to high-cost rural areas.

The Legislature had allocated $15.7 million for the Power Cost Equalization program by drawing from the principal of the fund.

Lawmakers approved the bond measure, the capital budget and the municipal reimbursement bill. They now go to the governor for consideration.

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