Legislative delegation touts work in session

Posted: Wednesday, June 01, 2005

With the legislative session finished, the central Kenai Peninsula state legislative delegation reported back to their constituents Tuesday at a panel jointly hosted by the Kenai, Nikiski and Soldotna chambers and the Alaska Support Industry Alliance.

Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, and Reps. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, and Kurt Olson, R-Soldotna, said they made progress this year in passing a capital and operating budget, dealing with some resource development issues in the region, starting to solve issues with state and teacher retirement systems and funding education.

Wagoner pointed to four oil and gas-related issues that were addressed this session.

Efforts to help fund mobilization of a jack-up rig in Cook Inlet were not finalized, he said citing no firm contracts with oil companies to use it as the reason. A jack-up rig is a movable platform that is used to explore for oil in offshore locations.

"We're not ready to do anything with a jack-up rig," he said.

In other efforts, Wagoner said passage of House Bill 71 will help promote new oil and gas production in the inlet. This bill gives oil and gas production credits geared toward exploration circumstances in the inlet.

"It's something that is very positive," he said.

Also, there has "basically" been a resolution on regulating the Cook Inlet Gas Gathering System, or CIGGS, he said.

Agrium has petitioned the Regulatory Commission of Alaska to regulate this pipeline to give them better access to gas on the west side of the inlet.

Pointing to the capital budget that was passed, Wagoner said it is about $700 million in state funds. This includes projects that are years down the road, such as a new building at Kenai Peninsula College and widening the Kenai Spur Highway in spots, he said.

Olson said two pieces of legislation he introduced this session passed. One was legislation that encouraged the the Alaska Department of Natural Resources Division of Oil and Gas to develop clear guidelines for abandoning oil platforms in Cook Inlet.

"We've got several companies that are interested in taking over the platforms," he said, adding this will help them know what is in store when they cease production.

The other was a bill that would allow commercial vehicles to use personalized license plates.

Olson is on the House Resources Committee and co-chair of the Community and Regional Affairs Committee. There were three bills sponsored by Community and Regional Affairs that passed as well, he said.

Chenault said he was frustrated that different state departments spent more than their budget allowed and will scrutinize their spending in the future.

This year's operating budget is $2.7 billion, a $275 million increase in this budget over last year.

He said some of these increases are because of increases in education spending and health and social services, for example.

As far as the Public Employees Retirement System and the Teacher Retirement System, or PERS/TRS, is concerned: "I don't know what the answer is," Chenault said.

The Legislature passed a PERS/TRS bill that set up a new tier for employees.

Olson said there is about a $5 billion shortfall projected over a number of years. Setting up a new tier will help slow down this shortfall, he said later in an interview.

Chenault said he is forming a task force this summer to compare cost differentials between different school districts in the state and look at the funding formula.

"I'm very frustrated at the way the state funds our education system," he said.

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