JUNEAU -- The Alaska Legislature began a 90-day session Tuesday with Gov. Sarah Palin feuding with the Senate president but also calling on legislators to work with her on the state's budget surplus and getting a natural gas pipeline.
"The Palin-Parnell administration stands ready to work not against you but with you to accomplish all this," the governor said in her annual State of the State speech.
Palin only briefly mentioned ethics but that was another big topic in the state Capitol on the first day of the 2008 session. Legislators, painfully aware that some of their former colleagues are headed to prison for bribery convictions, said they would focus on restoring public trust in the Legislature.
"The biggest thing we have to continue to do is build on what we did last year, and that is developing the public trust in the legislative process and legislators in general," said House Speaker John Harris, a Valdez Republican.
There will be lots of debate on whether legislators should be allowed to vote on bills in which they have a potential conflict of interest. Some legislators say no, others say each lawmaker has constituents who rely on their representation on issues in front of the Legislature.
"If you set up a mechanism in which (the state House) can disqualify a member for a conflict, you are essentially disenfranchising about 15,000 voters for the purposes of that question," said Anchorage Democratic Rep. Mike Doogan.
Palin's speech was the big event of the first day, with many legislators hoping to hear where the governor wants to take the state in the coming year.
Palin said Alaska must become more self-sufficient and not so reliant on money steered home by the state's congressional delegation.
"We can and must continue to develop our economy, because we cannot and must not rely so heavily on federal government earmarks," Palin said in the speech to a joint session of the state House and Senate.
The Republican governor's speech was largely a look back at her first year in office and a case for the budget recommendations she's made to the Legislature. The governor's significant new initiative in the speech was the proposed elimination of a state certificate of need program that limits the creation of new medical facilities in Alaska.
House Finance Committee co-chairman Kevin Meyer, an Anchorage Republican, said he did not learn much from the speech.
"Not much substance," he said.
Anchorage Democratic Sen. Johnny Ellis said the speech did include a long list of "programs, directions, visions," and had a positive theme. Ellis said he wished, though, that the governor had talked about improving communications with the Legislature.
A BETTER FOOT
"I'm hoping this session starts off on a new foot of better communication," Ellis said.
Some legislators felt blindsided by the budget vetoes the governor made last year. Ellis said miscommunication also was at the root of how this session has started with a fight between the governor and the Senate majority.
The dispute was over what time the governor would give her speech. It reached the point where Palin was talking about giving the speech just to the House -- without members of the Senate there.
The governor had asked in mid-December to give the speech at 6 p.m. in the hopes it could be carried live on television news. Her office said that, after hearing no objection, the governor purchased a plane ticket to leave later the same night of the speech to go see her son Track graduate Thursday from boot camp in Georgia.
The state House is in charge of picking the time for the speech and last week decided it would be at 7 p.m., too late for the governor to make the plane.
The House agreed to move it up to 6 p.m. But, up until the day before the speech, the Senate majority said it would need to stick to the 7 p.m. schedule because senators were still arriving in Juneau.
Senate President Lyda Green on Tuesday then proposed a 4 p.m. speech "to better accommodate the governor's personal travel schedule." Palin agreed but bristled at the implication that it was about her personal travel.
Palin said she only bought the plane ticket after lawmakers didn't object when she notified them more than a month ago that she preferred an earlier start time.
"This is an unfortunate indication that some would rather spend time and resources on things other than working together and moving our state forward," Palin said in a written statement. "My office has a lot of work to accomplish for Alaskans and we will not let things like this get us get bogged down."
Ellis said it was a misunderstanding and the Senate put the speech back on track after understanding why Palin needed an earlier time.
CHANGE AND TRUST
Palin said in her speech that in her first year in office "we have seen positive change and restored trust."
She mentioned ethics reform, raising taxes on the oil companies and her proposed path to a natural gas pipeline as achievements of the year.
Palin also said she would appoint a coordinator to oversee the statewide energy fund she has proposed for renewable projects like wind, hydropower and geothermal energy. She spoke about her previous proposal for early and increased funding for schools, to avoid the cycle of districts giving pink slips to teachers and then hiring them back when the money comes in.
Palin also talked about improving health care, arguing that getting rid of the certificate of need program would increase health care competition and access. It's a program where significant new medical facilities must get a state certificate showing that there's a need for them in the community.
It's supposed to guard against doctors cherry-picking profitable services, like radiology, leaving community hospitals with more costly and less profitable services like emergency care.
Palin said the system is broken and riddled with lawsuits.
"Alaskans want health care in the hands of doctors, not lobbyists and lawyers," Palin said.
Contact Sean Cockerham at email@example.com or 907-586-1531 in Juneau.
Palin's key points:
PUBLIC TRUST: In her first year in office "we have seen positive change and restored trust."
GAS PIPELINE: The Alaska Gasline Inducement Act has "cleared the path for our gas to feed hungry local markets and to help secure the United States with a safe, stable and domestic supply of clean energy."
SHARING STATE REVENUE: She touted her plans to share more revenue with local governments, provide more school funding, and create endowments for transportation and alternative energy.
SAVING: The governor said there needs to be a focus on high energy costs while "saving and investing" the windfall dollars the state treasury receives from the record high oil prices.