Fairbanks poll shows lawmakers' stance on special session

Posted: Wednesday, August 13, 2003

JUNEAU (AP) Nearly half of the Legislature favored a special session to override Gov. Frank Murkowski's veto of the senior citizen Longevity Bonus program, according to a survey by the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

The survey of legislators and their staff shows that 29 lawmakers wanted to consider a veto override, well short of the two-thirds support needed for a special session.

The Fairbanks newspaper conducted its own survey in response to GOP leaders' refusal to release the results of their own recently completed poll of lawmakers.

Minority Democrats who supported overriding a veto by the GOP governor invoked a state law to force GOP leaders to conduct the survey.

They have been pushing for the release of the GOP survey results. But state law is unclear as to whether the survey is a public vote, and Republican leaders have chosen not to release the information.

''The protocol is wide open for discussion. As you can see, there's a real reluctance to parade people's names out there if they didn't want to be out there,'' said House Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole.

Each lawmaker is free to tell the media how they voted, but the record kept by legislative leaders will remain private, Coghill said. He said the survey has become part of a ''political game'' by Democrats who seek to embarrass lawmakers.

''All it would do is create more ammunition for those who would want to put the majority in a bad light,'' Coghill said.

In all, eight Republicans declined to tell the newspaper whether they favored a special session. Sen. Scott Ogan, R-Palmer, was one of four state senators who would not divulge how he voted in the survey. Ogan said the survey differs from a vote on the floor of the Senate, saying ''It's not a public vote.''

Also declining were Sens. John Cowdery of Anchorage; Lyda Green of Wasilla; Gary Stevens, Kodiak; and Reps. Carl Gatto, Palmer; Norman Rokeberg, Anchorage; Bill Williams, Saxman; and Kelly Wolf, Kenai. All are Republicans.

House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage, said legislators should feel obligated to tell the public how they weighed in on the earlier survey conducted by GOP leaders.

''They want to cloud it by hiding behind the anonymity of legislative shenanigans. I think that reveals a lot about the strength of their convictions,'' Berkowitz said.

The Longevity Bonus program provides monthly checks of up to $250 for about 18,000 eligible seniors. But about 26,000 seniors who turned 65 after a 1996 cutoff date don't receive the checks.

Murkowski said the program is unfair to those ineligible and the state cannot afford the program. The program ends in August and the state will assist needy seniors, including those not eligible for the program, for a year.

After intense pressure from senior citizen groups in Alaska, Republicans in the Legislature included funding for the Longevity Bonus program in the fiscal 2004 budget.

An earlier plan approved by Senate Republicans to phase it out over five years did not pass the House. Several lawmakers who voted for the phase-out plan also said they were opposed to returning for a veto override.

Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, said the bonus program no longer follows the intent of the original law, created to reward elderly pioneers of the state. Lawsuits forced the state to open the program to a larger group of seniors, he said.

Hawker, part of the budget subcommittee that included full funding for the program, said he favored an orderly phase-out. But he did not support reinstating the program he called ''corrupted by the litigation process.''

''Even if you could get the bare number of votes to go back into session, if there's not enough votes to override the veto, it's an exercise in futility that is nothing but unnecessary spending,'' Hawker said, referring to the expense of bringing the Legislature back to Juneau.

It takes the support of 42 lawmakers to call a special session and a three-fourths vote of the Legislature to override a budget veto.

Alaska law makes legislative votes a public record but shields some internal workings of the Legislature from disclosure. A legal opinion by the Division of Legal and Research Services concluded that it is unclear into which category the survey falls.

Berkowitz, an attorney, said he has a strong legal case to force GOP leaders to release the survey results but, ''We don't have the money to go to court.''

Democrats plan to introduce bills to force the disclosure of future surveys and to reinstate funding for the bonus program, he said. Democrats also plan to ask for a joint veto session when the Legislature returns in January, Berkowitz said.

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