The fate of the commission that oversees utilities in Alaska is again in the hands of state lawmakers.
Opinions over what that should be varied among lawmakers representing the Kenai Peninsula. What they and their colleagues decide during the special session that began Monday could determine if the life of the 3-year-old agency that replaced the Alaska Public Utilities Commission in 1999 will be extended or begin a yearlong shutdown that could mean its extinction next year.
Gov. Tony Knowles is seeking a four-year extension for the agency that oversees electrical, water and sewer, waste disposal, telephone and other services, but some Republican state lawmakers in the Alaska Senate have balked at that, saying the agency is in need of serious reform first. Some have shown reluctance to make any changes or grant an extension while Knowles, a Democrat, is still in office. The governor's term ends in December.
None of the peninsula lawmakers said they think Alaska can do without some sort of regulatory agency. Their differences are largely over the timing of those reforms.
Knowles called for the special session last month after a House bill to extend the life of the commission failed to pass the Senate and died with the end of the 22nd Legislature.
Also on the special session agenda is the governor's request for $2.6 million to fully fund Pioneers' and Veterans' homes in Alaska. The money, Knowles said, would enable some 100 empty beds to be occupied by aging Alaska veterans and other seniors.
The Legislature passed a measure in a special session in May creating a three-year pilot project to fill unused capacity in Alaska Pioneers' Homes with veterans. It allowed the Department of Administration, which runs the pioneers' homes, to reserve a percentage of beds for vets. The bill also authorized the department to work with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to pay per diem benefits to veterans residing in Alaska Pioneers' Homes, according to a legislative press release.
Knowles said the bill that actually passed the Legislature was "a gutted version" of the intent.
Regarding the future of the RCA, Knowles said failure to extend it could hurt consumers who depend on the agency to ensure fair prices. He said Monday that lawmakers who have opposed an extension should "quit playing special-interest politics and do what's right for Alaskans."
Sen. Jerry Ward, R-Nikiski, said the RCA could be fixed and reauthorized during the 23rd Legislature next year. There is no need to rush into a lengthy extension this week, he said.
"I know Gov. Knowles wants to deal with it on his watch, but I think there is plenty of time to do it under Gov. Murkowski," Ward said.
He acknowledged he was presuming an eventual victory in November by U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski, who is seeking the Republican Party nomination for governor in the Aug. 27 primary.
Ward said the RCA needs better avenues of communication between the public, utilities and the commission. He also said it needed timelines and deadlines for rendering decisions.
"Some decisions (issues) have been there for two or three years," Ward said.
Sen. John Torgerson, R-Kasilof, agreed the RCA needs reform, but he's opposed to sunsetting the agency, calling it "a very important component" of regulation. He likened sunsetting the RCA with trying to sunset the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Utilities.
While RCA procedures likely could benefit from more tightening, the House version of the RCA reauthorization bill included timelines meant to do that, said Rep. Ken Lancaster, R-Soldotna. Any problems still on the table can be addressed, he said.
"I don't think we should allow them to sunset," Lancaster said. "I think they should be extended a minimum of one year."
At the core of the debate over the future of the RCA is what some are calling "the phone wars." Essentially, Alaska Communications System, or ACS, the state's largest phone company, wants to charge its competitors more for access to its phone lines and says the RCA has blocked that. General Communications Inc., or GCI, the state's second largest phone company, thinks the RCA is functioning as intended.
The commission has other things to worry about besides phone wars, Lancaster said.
Rep. Drew Scalzi, R-Homer, said he's convinced sunsetting the agency is wrong, though he'd accept a shorter extension than the four years sought by the Knowles administration.
"I think when you extend it for a shorter time you hold everybody's feet to the fire," he said. "If it's generated that much consternation, have a review or an audit. But you certainly don't get rid of them. That's stupid. The public will suffer if there is not a watchdog."
The Legislature's Division of Budget and Audit recently audited the RCA. That review determined the agency was performing well and the division recommended extending its life to July 1, 2006.
On veterans housing, Lancaster said no one wants to ignore veterans, but there are some practical problems that must be addressed.
"We are 1,100 nurses short across Alaska," he said. "That's not an easy fix."
He suggested taking half the $2.6 million proposed by Knowles and funneling it through the University of Alaska to train more nurses.
Torgerson and Scalzi said they didn't have a feel for how the Legislature would handle the question.
Ward said he wasn't sure if the Legislature would even address it in the special session.
Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, could not be reached for comment by the Clarion's deadline.
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