Changes bring uncertainty to Legislature

Posted: Sunday, November 21, 2010

Business groups are trying to read the tealeaves, trying to determine what will be the key issues in the Legislature's organization for the 2011 session. The outlook is murky.

In January, a new two-year Legislature convenes with new leaderships and committee appointments. The essential makeup of the House and Senate leadership appears little changed from the previous Legislature - a formal Republican and Democrat coalition in the state Senate and an informal coalition in the state House, but there are some important changes in committee chairmanships.

Key legislation of interest to industry and business groups includes possible changes in oil and gas taxes and a revamp and extension of the state's coastal management program.

Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, will remain speaker of the House in the new Legislature, and Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, remains as president of the Senate. The Senate remains split 10-10 between Republicans and Democrats, while Republicans have a slight edge in the House.

Despite a margin of control, House Republicans have allowed several Democrats from the state's rural areas to join the majority organization, which gives Chenault and other leaders a wider margin of control and allows rural lawmakers more representation on key committees, like the House Finance Committee.

In the Senate's coalition, Democrats are in positions of considerable influence, such as Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, as chair of the Senate Rules Committee, a group that determines the timing of bills moving to the Senate floor.

The Senate Finance Committee is chaired by Sens. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, and Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, as in the previous Legislature.

Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, remains as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, a post French held in the previous Legislature.

In the Senate Resources Committee, Sen. Joe Paskvan, D-Fairbanks, will co-chair along with Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai. Wagoner was previously in the Republican minority, a group of Republican senators outside the coalition, but has now joined the coalition.

In the minority, Wagoner was a member of the Senate Resources Committee but can now be co-chair as a part of the coalition majority.

Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, formerly co-chair of Senate Resources and the Senate Energy Committee, will be on the Senate Finance Committee in the new Legislature.

A significant shift in the House is that two conservative Republicans, Reps. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, and Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, will not co-chair the House Resources Committee. Johnson is instead chairman of House Rules and Neuman has been named to the House Finance Committee, both positions of influence.

Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, will be co-chair of the Resources Committee in the new Legislature with a newly elected lawmaker, Eric Feige, R-Chickaloon, as co-chair.

While Feige is a newcomer with no track record, Seaton is an experienced legislator with a strong interest in environmental issues and mining taxes, and has taken independent positions on issues like oil and gas taxation from his House Republican colleagues.

The House Finance Committee will be co-chaired by Reps. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, and Bill Thomas, R-Haines. Thomas has been on the Finance Committee for several years but his move to share the committee leadership could give new strength to rural lawmakers.

Thomas is also keenly interested in renewable energy, having been a primary sponsor of the state's innovative renewable energy grant program.

Stoltze was co-chair of House Finance in the previous Legislature. Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, co-chair of House Finance previously, will now chair the Legislature's Budget and Audit Committee.

One spat that occurred in the House organization push was when Rep. Clarisse Millet, R-Anchorage, asked to chair Budget and Audit Committee and was denied. Millet left the Republican-controlled majority along with Rep. Kyle Johansen, R-Ketchikan, a personal friend. Millet and Johansen will apparently work as independent Republicans outside the Republican majority and the Democratic minority.

Rep. Beth Kertulla was chosen again by her fellow Democrats in the House to be minority leader, a position she held previously. In the Senate the Republican minority is headed by Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole. Sen. Con Bunde, R-Anchorage, previously held this position. Bunde is retiring this year.

Oil and gas taxes will be on the Legislature's agenda in 2011, in some form. Gov. Sean Parnell, who will be sworn into office Dec. 6 for his first four-year term, along with Lt. Gov.-elect Mead Treadwell, has indicated that he will review petroleum taxes and suggest changes.

If it appears a natural gas pipeline project is possible by mid-spring, legislators will also take up a long-term agreement on state production taxes on gas with North Slope producers who would sign long-term contracts to ship gas in a pipeline.

Coastal zone management is another issue on the Legislature's agenda next spring. Rural legislators made a strong push for changes at the end of the 2010 session, but were unsuccessful.

Industry groups and Parnell have expressed strong opposition to changes proposed last year out of concerns that coastal communities would be able to control key state permits for development projects.

Sponsors of the 2010 Legislature, who are again in influential positions in the new Legislature, have said they will re-introduce their bills in January. Primary support for the changes came from Sens. Donny Olson, D-Nome, and Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, and Rep. Reggie Joule, D-Kotzebue, in the state House.

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