The state Senate's Republican majority may be gearing up for the new legislative session, but priorities are yet to be cast in stone.
"We had a wide-ranging discussion of issues to be considered ... ," said Senate President Rick Halford, R-Chugiak, in a press release issued by the majority on Dec. 1. "We will not be finalizing our specific priorities until we have a chance to meet with the leadership of the House of Representatives."
Senate Majority Leader Loren Leman, R-Anchorage, said getting everyone together this time of year is a challenge.
"We didn't have everybody there even in our caucus," he said. "Until we get a chance to talk with the House and get consensus on where to go together, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to list something we want to do. We end up having to pull together anyway."
But that isn't stopping discussion of topics to be considered.
"We will be working on implementation of the next phase of our long-term fiscal plan, whatever shape that will be," Leman said. "We're just not at a point to talk about any details of it yet. But it will be one of the key items we will work on next session.
"I think it's fair to say that as the House had indicated an interest in, so are we interested in commercialism of gas from the North Slope," Leman said. "We're not sure what role the Legislature might play in that, but anyway, we're sort of watching that unfold right now. With high gas prices, it appears that a project is economical and many people believe it is. For the sake of Alaska, I think it would be good."
Sen. John Torgerson, R-Kasilof, who recently took advantage of some pre-session time off to visit family out of state, is back on the Kenai Peninsula and ready to go to work as the new chairman of the Senate Resources Committee.
"I'm excited about being Resource chairman," Torgerson said. "My primary job will be working on the particulars of the gas line. Once I get my feet on the ground, we'll be having hearings on possible routes and what the state's role will be in this."
Torgerson said natural gas is currently being used to pressurize North Slope oilfields, forcing oil out of the ground. The economic viability of diverting that gas into a pipeline headed south has yet to be determined.
"There are a lot of questions that we need to look at before we can even make intelligent decisions," Torgerson said, adding that Alaska's congressional delegation, the next U.S. president and the Canadian government will also be key players in the future of the gas pipeline.
"I'm just really happy that I'm there," Torgerson said of the Resource Committee. "I've served four years on the Finance Committee and two years chairing it. As big as resource issues are going to be, I'm on a learning curve to begin with."
Other subjects Torgerson predicted the Legislature will address included Stellar sea lions, a roadless Tongass National Forest, logging in the Tongass and Chugach national forests, coal mining and state land disposal.
"On a personal level, I'm going to be working for an increase in the education foundation formula," Torgerson said. "I'll be looking for some major changes in how we deal with vocational education, and even though I'm not on the Finance Committee, I need to continue my work with the Marine Highway System, trying to get it brought into the 21st century."
Torgerson said he also has his eye on efforts to bring a 1,000-bed privately run prison to the Kenai area. The Department of Corrections originally approved construction of a facility at Fort Greeley, but the possible demise of that project has eyes other than Torgerson's turning to the Kenai Peninsula.
Supporters of the project anticipate it will create 300 employment opportunities and keep 1,000 prisoners in state who are currently serving their sentences in Arizona.
"Three hundred jobs is a huge issue for the Kenai (Peninsula)," Torgerson said. "If everything comes together right, then I want to see that prison."
Kenai Peninsula Borough officials are considering asking the state to shift its attention from Fort Greeley to the Kenai Peninsula. A public hearing on the subject is scheduled for the borough assembly's Dec. 12 meeting.
Torgerson said borough officials have some work to do to get the go-ahead for the prison.
"They've got to do a lot of ground work to bring all the folks on board before that prison can go forward," he said. "I certainly am going to lend my support and everything I can do to bring that together, because it will be great for us to have that added to our economy down here."
Sen. Jerry Ward, R-Anchorage, has been in Mexico helping tend to his ailing father. Calling from Mexico on Tuesday, Ward added his support to the prison project.
"I'm hopeful that if the (Fort Greeley) project doesn't work, that Kenai will be in position to get the private prison," he said. "That's starting to look very favorable for the peninsula. Hopefully we will have ourselves in order before the beginning of the session, so that we will be able to keep the 1,000 inmates in Alaska instead of sending them to Arizona."
Ward also concurred with the Senate majority's delay in announcing priorities.
"The thought process on the priorities is to make sure they're in line with the House," said Ward, whose district encompasses part of the Kenai Peninsula. "We were ready to do our own list, but don't want to not be in line with the House. It's impossible to get a priority through unless the House and the Senate can agree on it."
The Senate majority's Friday press release also announced the following committee chairmanships:
Rules: Drue Pearce, R-Ancho-rage; Finance: Co-chairs Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks; Dave Donley, R-Anchorage; Judiciary: Robin Taylor, R-Wrangell; Health, Education and Social Services: Lyda Green, R-Matanuska-Susitna; Labor and Commerce: Randy Phillips, R-Eagle River; State Affairs: Gene Therriault, R-North Pole; Transportation: John Cowdery, R-Anchorage; Legis-lative Budget and Audit: Therriault.
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