JUNEAU -- Lawmakers sporting blue and yellow boutonnieres bestowed hugs and smiles on their colleagues and promised big things to come as the 26th Alaska State Legislature convened on Tuesday.
Newly elected House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, pledged to return "pride, integrity and respect back to this institution," a veiled reference to the corruption scandals that continue to shake Alaska's political world.
Taking up the gavel in the Senate, Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, spoke of the challenging economic times -- both for the state and the nation.
"This Senate stands ready with ideas and solutions to problems that seem so overwhelming," said Stevens.
The state is facing a fiscal squeeze as oil prices continue to hover in the $34 range, compared with $140 a barrel last year. Meanwhile Alaska residents, especially in rural areas, continue to face staggering energy costs.
Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell, on hand to swear in newly elected legislators, said he and Gov. Sarah Palin are ready to work with the Legislature.
"It really is a time, in my estimation, to lay down our swords and pull together for all Alaskans," said Parnell.
Lawmakers were sworn in as groups of four while family, friends and staff filed in and out of the small public galleries in back to witness the event.
The House convened first Tuesday afternoon, followed by the Senate about an hour later.
After the Senate floor session, the 16-member Senate bipartisan majority laid out its goals for the two-year session, pledging to work carefully to extend the state's savings and take advantage of the federal economic stimulus plan being touted by President Barack Obama, who was sworn in as president Tuesday.
Lawmakers also plan to focus on reining in energy costs and bringing affordable renewable energy to Alaska communities.
The group said no bills will go to the floor without the backing of at least 11 caucus members. The bipartisan coalition, formed two years ago, now has a veto-proof majority. Senate Majority Leader Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, said the group held together despite many predictions that it would fail.
"It worked well, amazingly well, and Alaskans got their money's worth," Ellis said. "Our group was strong and it's gotten stronger."
The Senate minority now consists of four Republicans, all political veterans who have held positions of power in the past.
On the House side, four Democrats from Western Alaska are now part of House majority, boosting its ranks to 26 members.
In an interview after the floor session, Chenault said state revenue projections will be a main focus of budget discussions. Lawmakers each year have to rely on the state's best guess of where oil prices will be when putting together the next fiscal year's budget. The governor's budget is relying on a predicted average of $74 a barrel, but prices have stayed low and Chenault said lawmakers will have to modify the spending plan if prices continue to bottom out.
Last year, with a healthy surplus from high oil prices, lawmakers socked billions away into savings accounts. Chenault said this year they will likely dip into those savings, rather than cut services.
"Balancing the budget would devastate programs that Alaskans asked for and need," he said.
House Minority Leader Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, said the philosophical differences between the caucuses will be sharpened in a time of revenue shortfall.
"It's hard to predict where they will happen, but any time you have a shortfall you are going to have arguments because people view and value things differently," she said.
Other contentious issues have popped up in legislation filed last week. A bill to reinstitute the death penalty, limits on abortion and left-over issues from the Troopergate scandal involving Palin's firing of her public safety commissioner were among measures filed.
Lawmakers also plan to begin discussing setting rates for gas taxes in preparation for a natural gas pipeline from the North Slope that would feed markets in the Lower 48. Last year, they awarded an exclusive license to TransCanada Corp. to build the line, though the award does not ensure the line will be built.
Sens. Bettye Davis, D-Anchorage, and Al Kookesh, D-Angoon, were attending the presidential inauguration in Washington, D.C., and were expected to be sworn in later this week. Sen. Kim Elton, a Juneau Democrat who is midway through his four-year term, is also attending the national event.
The first day of session was also a time to formally assign leadership and committee positions.
Lawmakers will buckle down to work starting today with the first committee hearings. Gov. Sarah Palin will deliver her State of the State address Thursday evening.