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Lawmakers: Finishing in 90 days won't be easy

Posted: Thursday, December 13, 2007

Ninety days may not be long enough.

So say members of the Kenai Peninsula's legislative contingent who have concerns that the upcoming second session of the 25th Alaska Legislature will be too short to allow for comprehensive public input on proposed new laws, and that significant time may have to be allotted in debate over competing gas pipeline proposals under the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act.

"I'm most concerned about getting our job done," Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, said in an interview this week. "With the 90-day session, the biggest issues we will have to deal with are education and the unfunded liability of the Public Employees' Retirement System and the Teachers' Retirement System, often called PERS/TRS."

Then there is work on the FY 2009 Operating Budget, he added.

"Those things have to pass," he said.

A ballot measure approved by voters in 2006 truncated the normal 121-day legislative session and the new 90-day length takes effect in 2008.

"It's going to be difficult to get the job done," Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, commented during an interview Monday. "I'm happy our district voted against it."

Seaton represents House District 35, which includes Homer and Seward.

Like Chenault, Seaton worries that the time needed to complete necessary legislative functions will eat into time normally set aside for public input. Ensuring bills are given proper attention often means assigning bills to numerous committees, all of which may want to hold hearings. Meeting public notice requirements also will consume time, he noted.

"There's really no benefit to it at all," Seaton said. "We get paid the same amount not matter what."

Seaton said he thinks one result will be year-round legislative committee meetings and more special sessions.

Looming on the near horizon is the natural gas line project. Five companies have submitted proposals to build the multi-billion dollar project under the terms set out in the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act, AGIA. A sixth, ConocoPhillips, has submitted another outside the parameters of AGIA.

Sometime during the session it is expected that Gov. Sarah Palin will forward one or more of those proposals to lawmakers for their consideration. That could further limit the time available to other bills, unless the Legislature opts to send the gas line debate into a special session.

That's a real possibility, said Rep. Kurt Olson, R-Soldotna.

"There will be at least one special session," he predicted in an interview this week. "An AGIA proposal from the governor is likely to hit around mid-session. Realistically, we're not going to get out in 90 days. I'd love to, but I don't see it happening."

Seaton noted that if one standout proposal emerges from the governor's assessment team as clearly adequate, then there might be little problem.

But what if lawmakers are presented with two or more? What if one clearly fits the strictures and intent of AGIA better than all the others, but another clearly stands a better chance of actually producing a gas line?

Answering those questions is likely to require substantial scrutiny by lawmakers, and that could take substantial time, Seaton said.

Could an AGIA plan become a political football like tapping the Constitutional Budget Reserve to balance budgets has been in the past?

Seaton doesn't think so.

"It's an issue so important to the state, that if there is a good proposal, it should pass," he said. "We all want a gas line. I don't think people (lawmakers) will leverage a gas line for support on something else (other bills)."

Adopting operating and capital budget bills has always been a time-consuming process. High oil prices have pushed revenues up dramatically, and the governor has proposed a multi-faceted, two-year plan for saving some $7.1 billion that is likely to get some debate.

Olson predicted lawmakers could spend time "squabbling over" the oil revenue surplus.

"It's a lot easier to spend money than to save it," he noted.

The new time constraint could make in-depth budget deliberations problematic, Chenault noted.

"It takes time for each individual legislator to look at what is in the budget, convey the issues to constituents, and try to get feedback," he said. "When we have public testimony, we have hundreds of calls from people affected by each and every program and they want to see increases."

Even those citizens who do not interact with lawmakers are impacted by the growth and size of state budgets, he said.

"Will there be less meetings? Probably. Could they be more concise and not allow as much testimony? That certainly could be the case," Chenault said. "My hope is that we can still allow as much public process as we can."

Chenault co-chairs the powerful House Finance Committee and expects to meet with subcommittee chairs in the next couple of weeks to see if any wish to start holding hearings early; that is, in December or early January before the Legislature formally convenes on Jan. 15.

Chenault said he thinks it possible for the Legislature to complete its work in 90 days, but much will depend on the governor, the House and the Senate seeing eye-to-eye.

"If (AGIA) gets thrown into the mix, however, I can conceivably see we might not get done," Chenault said.

Hal Spence can be reached at hspence@ptialaska.net.



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