Lawmakers work for resolution to Knowles bills

Posted: Tuesday, May 21, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- Lawmakers worked to avoid a third special session on Monday by taking up two issues that Gov. Tony Knowles has demanded be addressed before leaving town.

The Legislature approved two veterans bills, one to allow the state to receive federal funds for veterans staying in the Alaska Pioneers' Homes and another to create a veterans advisory council, late Monday and sent them to Knowles.

Also on Monday, the Senate was considering a bill that extends the authority of the Regulatory Commission of Alaska for three months.

Knowles has called lawmakers into a special session to take up the two issues after they became stalled in House and Senate committees during the Legislature's own special session to reach a budget deal. Lawmakers are currently working under their own special session.

Knowles winnowed his special session order down to include the

The major veterans bill would create a three-year pilot program in an attempt to receive federal funds to assist in operating the cash-strapped 600-bed Alaska Pioneers' Homes.

The Legislature approved the bill on Monday, which also changes the name of the assisted living centers to Alaska Pioneers' and Veterans Homes. It also approved a measure to write into law provisions for an 11-member veterans advisory council.

Knowles had wanted $2.6 million in state funding to allow the state to expand eligibility to veterans and fill some of the 100 vacant beds in the system. Currently, there are 94 veterans living in the state facilities.

The state is attempting to generate some of the $687,000 that veterans in the facilities could receive from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. But the program has to be approved by that veterans administration.

Alaska is the only state that does not have a veterans home, said Adjutant General Phil Oates.

Knowles Press Secretary Bob King said the bill falls short of what the governor sought, but said it would satisfy his request for action on the matter.

''At this stage it is minimally acceptable, not as much for us, but for the veterans themselves,'' King said.

Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee had approved a bill that extends the life of the Regulatory Commission of Alaska by three months. The commission that regulates utilities and telephone companies was set to close next year.

Knowles called lawmakers into a third special session on Sunday to take up the two issues after lawmakers failed to consider them following a two-day extended session and a special session. The 22nd Legislature was supposed to adjourn for the final time on May 14.

The Judiciary Committee action late Monday was a turnabout after its chairman Sen. Robin Taylor, R-Wasilla, had refused to hold hearings on the matter.

Taylor, a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor and a frequent critic of the Knowles administration, said a state study of the agency should be completed before the Legislature extends the sunset date of the agency.

Taylor bristled at Knowles' decision to call the Legislature into special session.

''We've got (special session) proclamations flying out of the governors' office. He's now trying to hold the Legislature hostage. For what purpose?'' Taylor said.

But Taylor has raised the ire of others in the Senate majority caucus by refusing to hear the bills. When Taylor finally heard the bill, he was considering a shorter sunset period than a year.

''We're in the 11th hour because Senator Taylor chose to push us in the 11th hour,'' said Sen. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole. ''People are becoming impatient for being here and it's expensive to be here.''

It costs about $25,000 per day for the Legislature to meet in special session, said Pam Varni, executive director for the Legislative Affairs Agency.

That cost includes per diem of $174 that the 57 lawmakers outside of Juneau receive for being here along with the expense of legislative staff, Varni said.

At that rate, the Legislature would have spend about $150,000 during its extended stay in Juneau. The Legislature has a special session budget of $200,000, Varni said.

The veterans bill was opposed by the Pioneers of Alaska. It was also opposed by some House Republicans who said the state could not afford the expense in a year when the state faces an estimated $963 million budget deficit.

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