Peninsula representatives not happy about governor's decision

Posted: Sunday, May 30, 2004

Gov. Frank Murkowski's announcement last week that he intends to call a special session of the Legislature at the end of June isn't going over well with delegates representing the Kenai Peninsula.

"I don't expect it to produce a darn thing, except spending a lot of the people's money," House District 33 Rep. Kelly Wolf said Friday. "I've talked to his administration, and they told me it's my duty to be there. But I also have a duty in June to work with a bunch of kids on the (Kenai) riverbank. That's much more productive than going there at the whim of the governor. He'll have to come and get me."

Murkowski announced May 24 that the session would cover the fiscal shortfall, a proposal to increase the tobacco tax, and reform of the state workers' compensation law issues left unfinished when the Legislature adjourned May 11.

Also on the agenda will be consideration of the endowment plan for management of the Alaska Permanent Fund, and possibly a bond package for fixing the Lake Otis and Tudor intersection in Anchorage, as well as other projects.

"I have spoken with a majority of the presiding officers and the minority leaders in both the House and the Senate," Murkowski said. "I remain convinced that Alaskans expect us to resolve the state's long-term fiscal problems this year."

The governor said he would issue the proclamation regarding a special session after Memorial Day weekend.

At the conclusion of the legislative session earlier this month, the governor said he would leave it up to the leadership in the Legislature to call a special session. That did not happen. In making that call himself, Murkowski said he hoped lawmakers could reach a bipartisan solution.

Senate members roundly defeated efforts to put constitutional amendments concerning the permanent fund and a spending limit on the fall ballot. The House and Senate appeared to be headed toward some kind of agreement on raising the tobacco tax, but the session ended without resolution of that issue.

Whether lawmakers would want to tackle issues surrounding workers' compensation is another question. According to House District 34's Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, proposed changes would alter the way appeals were handled in compensation cases.

"It was the concern by some that that issue would make it more political and take away some of the ability of people on workers' compensation to have a fair appeals process," he said.

Chenault doesn't agree a special session would accomplish anything, save perhaps agreement on a tobacco tax.

"That's the only issue that's not a political hot potato," he said.

Neither he nor Wolf is prepared to vote for a hike in tobacco taxes, however.

Chenault noted there did not seem to be much chance enough minds in the Senate could be changed to provide sufficient votes to put the percent of market value (POMV) proposal for the permanent fund, or the constitutional spending limit measures on the fall ballot. That could lead to frustration for lawmakers and the public.

"My concern is that if we go to Juneau with no plan and end up spending money down there that it's going to be wasted," he said. "Why spend money on something that would be fruitless?"

Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, who represents House District 35, said all the items the governor has suggested would be on the special session's agenda already have been thoroughly discussed during the regular session. For good or ill, where lawmakers are now is likely to be where they would be come the end of a special session, he said.

"I don't think there would be a lot of people who would change their minds on the POMV. I see that as a zero possibility," Seaton said. "Nine senators would have to change. The governor had personally lobbied senators and was in the audience when the vote was taken. I've seen no information since then at all weighty enough to give people a reason to change their votes."

The same goes for a proposed constitutional spending limit. There are just not enough votes to make it happen.

Had Alaska seen a crash in oil prices this year, the impetus to fix the fiscal problems might have led to a different result, Seaton said. Instead, however, oil prices floating at around $40 per barrel has changed the financial atmosphere.

As for the tobacco tax, Seaton said the two houses might reach an agreement, but that's something that might easily be accomplished next January.

Seaton said he didn't know why the governor would call for a special session. Murkowski has said he has talked with leadership. Seaton said he's heard no suggestion from House leaders that the climate has changed.

"We did our job. We constructed a budget. It was reasonable. We got a three-quarters vote that funded that budget (by tapping the Constitutional Budget Reserve)," he said.

Seaton noted that the Legislature's budget used less of the CBR than the $400 million the governor had indicated last year that he would accept. Meanwhile, the CBR has actually grown in the last year or so, from around $1.7 billion to $2.2 billion, Seaton said.

Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, said a senate vote to put the POMV question on the ballot this year is unlikely without a public vote on a constitutional spending limit. He doesn't see the votes to do either at the moment.

"I don't see it, unless the governor knows something we don't. Maybe he's made a deal or something (with leadership)," he said.

Wagoner worries that the session will amount to little more than spending and wasting a lot of time and effort. He said he was going to write the governor asking that the session be held in Anchorage, instead of Juneau.

Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, is a supporter of the POMV proposal. But he also said he knows that in the minds of many Republican senators, POMV is tied to a spending limit.

"We weren't able to pass a spending limit in the Senate," he said. "That's where we'd need to start. If the public is to be asked to vote on the POMV, they need to be assured that if it passes we are not going to go wild in spending."

Stevens said if the ballot issues were not dealt with in the special session, it would be 2006 before they could be put on the ballot. Alaska is enjoying sky-high oil prices now, but there is no guarantee there won't be a crash.

"Then what?" Stevens said.

He added that he was glad the governor, and not the legislative leadership, is calling for the session. If it had been up to lawmakers, the agenda might have included a wide range of topics.

The governor, he said, will propose a limited and focused agenda.

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