Private prison, gas line bills re-emerge

Posted: Tuesday, May 21, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- A private prison bill and a railroad bond bill re-emerged Monday in a special session of the Legislature after having died when the regular session ended last week.

It's not clear whether the measures have any chance of passing.

If lawmakers act quickly on two issues remaining on their special session agenda, the bills could die before ever having a hearing.

Some legislators were speculating Monday that the bills were being used to divert attention from other business, such as the Senate's failure to pass a measure reauthorizing the Regulatory Commission of Alaska.

The Senate Transportation Committee on Monday introduced the private prison bill and the bill authorizing the Alaska Railroad to sell bonds to finance a natural gas pipeline.

Senate Transportation Committee Chair John Cowdery, R-Anchorage, said he believes the two issues are important matters the Legislature should have hearings on.

''We're sitting down here doing nothing,'' Cowdery said. ''Let's do something that's productive for the state.''

Monday was the Legislature's sixth day beyond the normal 121-day legislative session.

Lawmakers extended their regular session by two days last week after failing to come to an agreement Tuesday night on a budget and bond package.

After the two-day extension, they still did not have a deal, so they called themselves into special session Friday to continue negotiating the budget and bond deal.

They wrapped up those issues last night, but Gov. Tony Knowles told them he would immediately call them back into session if they did not act on two bills he wants.

One is a bill turning the Pioneers' Home system into a veterans and pioneers home system. It passed the Senate, and was poised for a vote on the House floor Monday night.

The other bill Knowles said lawmakers need to act on would reauthorize the Regulatory Commission of Alaska.

Sen. Robin Taylor, R-Wrangell, has refused to let the bill leave his Judiciary Committee.

Other senators are growing impatient with Taylor's inaction and were speculating that the new bills introduced Monday are linked to the RCA issue.

''I think that's why you're seeing other issues introduced, just to obscure what's going on,'' said Sen. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole.

If the House acts on the veterans-pioneers' home issue, the only thing keeping legislators in Juneau would be the RCA bill.

Cowdery said that's not why he introduced the bills.

Cowdery said their introduction did not go over well with some members of the Senate Republican majority caucus, who were asking why he was popping new bills on the table when they want to go home.

''It's just boring here,'' Cowdery said. ''We're doing nothing. I'm getting tired of the food upstairs. So let's get our minds going and doing something productive.''

Not everyone agreed that reintroducing the private prison bill would be productive. The bill would authorize the state to contract with the city of Whittier to house 1,000 inmates. Whittier, in turn, would contract with Cornell Companies to build and operate the prison.

Senate Rules Committee Chairman Randy Phillips, R-Eagle River, helped keep the bill bottled up during the regular session because he said the state had not used a competitive bidding process to choose a contractor.

On Monday, Phillips said reintroducing the prison bill was an attempt to circumvent the legislative process.

Cowdery himself seemed willing to let the bills die if the Legislature could wrap up its other business.

''I'd like to get out of here tonight,'' Cowdery said.

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