Lawmakers, governor miss connections over stimulus

STIMULUS MONEY: Each side says other botched a conference.

March 26, 2009 

JUNEAU -- Tension is rising between Gov. Sarah Palin and state legislators over the federal economic stimulus money, with lawmakers saying there is a communications breakdown with the governor over what money the state should take.

Palin and top legislators blamed each other for the cancellation of a meeting they'd scheduled with one another Thursday to hash out the stimulus. Senate President Gary Stevens said the statement Palin sent to the press about what happened was "absolutely false, absolutely false."

"Someone should be brought to task on that," the Kodiak Republican said.

Palin responded that legislators knew she wasn't going be in Juneau for the meeting but was willing to participate by telephone.

"We were told then that they didn't care, that was fine with them, they were still going to cancel the meeting," the governor said. "It's kind of unfortunate because we do want to speak with them about the stimulus package and the strings attached to every dollar that we would be receiving."

The scrap comes as the governor and legislative leaders are increasingly at odds over the federal stimulus funds. Palin announced last week that she was not accepting nearly a third of the money. But leading legislators seem to want nearly all of it, with Anchorage Republican Rep. Mike Hawker saying they are finding very few strings attached to the money.

Legislative leaders said they need to know from Palin what portion of the stimulus that she would veto -- or simply refuse to administer -- if the Legislature accepts the federal money that she did not. Senate president Stevens said there's no point in lawmakers spending time analyzing the issues around funds that Palin plans to block anyway.

"We need better communications with her, that's all we're asking for ... It is really unfair for us not to know what might be off the table," Stevens said.

Palin said it's premature to talk about what she might decide to veto.

"It's hypothetical to talk about action that would be taken on a bill that of course hasn't reached our desk yet, it has not even been formulated yet," Palin said.

The House-Senate leadership meeting scheduled with Palin on Thursday was the first since she announced last week that she was not accepting stimulus funds. But it turned out Palin was in Anchorage on Thursday, naming her new attorney general and attending the memorial service for a Fort Richardson soldier recently killed in Afghanistan.

Lawmakers declined to meet with Palin's aides in her place, with Senate president Stevens saying the governor's staffers often have trouble communicating what Palin's intentions are.

"We need answers and we need to talk to the person who can tell us yes or no," said House Speaker Mike Chenault, a Nikiski Republican.

It boiled over when Palin sent a statement to the press blaming the Legislature for the meeting falling apart.

"Governor Sarah Palin was scheduled to participate telephonically in a meeting with legislative leadership today when legislative leaders cancelled the meeting to host their own press conference," it said.

The Senate president and House speaker said that is not true. They did hold a press conference Thursday afternoon to announce a clearinghouse for people to find information about applying for stimulus grants. But they said that had nothing to do with the cancellation of their meeting with Palin.

Legislative staff said that Jerry Gallagher, the governor's legislative director, had told them Wednesday that Palin wouldn't even participate by phone. Gallagher contacted them again late Thursday morning and said Palin was available by phone but by that point the meeting had been canceled and it was too late, according to the speaker's office.

Palin spokeswoman Sharon Leighow said it wasn't until Thursday that a hole cleared in the governor's schedule and she was able to commit to being a part of the meeting by telephone. Leighow said the governor was reaching out and making an effort to communicate with legislators even while out of town.

Not all legislators are complaining about the governor and communication. Palin's allies in the all-Republican Senate minority, which has just four members compared with the 16 in the bipartisan majority, said she does a fine job working with lawmakers.

"I don't see any lack of that involvement on her part," said Senate Minority Leader Gene Therriault, a North Pole Republican.

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