Knowles blasts Legislature for missteps this session

Posted: Thursday, May 23, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- Gov. Tony Knowles lambasted GOP lawmakers for a just-completed legislative session focused more on politics than statesmanship.

The Democrat governor accused Republicans who hold a majority in both houses of the Legislature of being more concerned with re-election than with the state's problems.

Because of a new legislative Redistricting map, all but three of the 60 seats in the Legislature will be on the November ballot. Knowles said Republican lawmakers ignored several major issues, such as subsistence and a plan to fix the state's chronic budget problems, as a result.

''I think this session was sadly shortsighted,'' Knowles said, noting that lawmakers failed to take up several bills that were widely supported by Alaskans.

One measure would have allowed $17 billion in tax exempt bonds to be floated through the Alaska Railroad Corporation as an incentive to building a natural gas pipeline to the Lower 48. The bill died in the Senate Resources Committee.

''Even the more experienced observers in Juneau would say they are hard pressed to find a silver lining through the imperfect storm of this year's legislative session,'' Knowles said.

The governor outlined a number of legislative missteps that he said will hurt Alaskans.

Republican lawmakers vowed to hold the line on government spending this session in reaction to anticipated billion-dollar budget deficits.

The state Department of Revenue forecast a budget shortfall of $826 million this fiscal year that is anticipated to grow to $963 million next year.

Republicans approved a fiscal 2003 operating budget that spends about $2.3 billion from its general fund, which is the main account of government.

But Knowles said many of the cuts were the product of budget ''trickery'' -- counting money differently to give the appearance of a budget cut -- and others were unnecessary.

The Legislature cut $250,000 from the Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation, forcing the state to close 11 parks in Fairbanks and the Matanuska Susitna region. But they were supported by fees that park users paid and so the cuts were unnecessary, Knowles said.

Nine parks in the Mat-Su area will begin being closed immediately, the department said. The state is considering alternatives to closing two Fairbanks parks, the department said.

Knowles said a bill to provide up to $190 million in state debt reimbursement for urban school construction projects also exacerbates the state's future fiscal woes.

Knowles is in the last year of his second term and will leave office in December. He is prohibited by the state constitution from seeking a third consecutive term.

The governor has not had a good relationship with the Republican-controlled Legislature. And relations were magnified in this session.

The Legislature refused to confirm any of Knowles appointments to the Boards of Fisheries and Game, the University of Alaska Board of Regents and the state Board of Education. Republicans voted to adjourn from that joint session twice without taking them up.

Several bills that the governor wanted also died in committee without a hearing or were amended from their original intent.

Knowles had proposed a $350 million income tax and other tax measures to close the state's budget deficit and told lawmakers not to consider the state's permanent fund program as a source of major revenues.

The House passed a $250 million income tax that would have assessed from Alaskans about the same as a sales tax that Republicans favored. Middle income Alaskans would have paid comparatively more of their income to the tax than the wealthy.

Senate leaders said early on that no broad-based tax would pass and made a show of rejecting it on the floor, with numerous lawmakers speaking out against it.

The Legislature passed five veterans bills that Knowles had sought. His most coveted bill would have given veterans a preference in the Alaska Pioneers' Home system and filled some of the 100 unoccupied spaces there.

Lawmakers ultimately amended the bill to create a three-year pilot program to allow the state to pursue federal funds for about 94 elderly veterans currently staying in Pioneers' Homes.

Senate President Rick Halford, R-Chugiak, said the conflict that was seen between Knowles and the Republican Legislature was a product of political differences. Lawmakers failed to act on many of Knowles' initiatives because they disagreed with them, Halford said.

''Tony Knowles is a liberal Democrat who believes that government provides the solutions and individuals provide the problem. And most Republicans believe the reverse,'' Halford said.

Lawmakers were to have adjourned May 14 but were held seven days after session to reach a budget deal on a series of school bond projects that will be before voters in November.

Lawmakers also took up a measure to extend the authority of the Regulatory Commission of Alaska, which was scheduled to sunset next year.

The House approved a four-year extension for the agency that regulates utilities and telephone companies but the Senate could not reach a compromise with core Republicans opposed to it.

Knowles has called a special session for June 24 to again take up the issue.

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