The Alaska House of Representatives on Friday night approved a capital budget that ranks among the biggest the state has ever seen. It also means that the nearly month-long deadlock of the Legislature's special session could be about to end.
House leaders want to adjourn the special session today after passing the capital budget, a sweeping document that pays for construction and maintenance of schools, roads, harbors, airports and libraries, as well as college scholarships, tourism marketing and much more.
The House version of the budget does not include a provision the Senate has insisted upon and it remains to be seen how that works out.
The provision says if Gov. Sean Parnell vetoes a single energy project, then no energy project can get money. The deadlock over that language is the main reason the Legislature has been in special session since April 17 at an estimated cost of $30,000 a day.
Senate leaders have said it's needed to protect projects from vetoes. There are signs, though, that the Senate is going to back down. The Senate president is citing statements Parnell made two weeks ago that he wouldn't be vindictive with vetoes or "target anybody for their stand on a particular issue."
"The governor has promised ... not to use his veto pen in retaliation to those senators who opposed the oil tax decrease bill. So the governor has to some extent, I think, backed off from what we saw as his position," Senate President Gary Stevens said this week. "Certainly, enormous attention will now be paid to any energy project that the administration chooses to veto."
Stevens stopped short of saying the Senate would drop the provision. Stevens did not respond to an interview request on the issue Friday. And Sitka Sen. Bert Stedman, who authored the disputed language, has not returned phone messages over the past week.
The House might decide to adjourn today even if the Senate doesn't agree to abandon the provision. That could leave the Senate in a position of either accepting the House version of the capital budget or leaving town with no capital budget at all.
This special session will expire when it hits the 30-day mark on Tuesday. But the governor or Legislature could call another one.
The House and Senate are also at loggerheads over a bill meant to give Arctic coastal communities more say over offshore oil development.
A BIG BUDGET
The latest official tally on the capital budget, including federal money, is $3.2 billion, most of which was added by the Senate. Anchorage Democratic Rep. Mike Doogan said his figures showed it at nearly $4 billion, of which almost $3 billion is state money and the rest federal.
"This is, I think, the largest capital budget that's ever been produced by the House of Representatives," he said. "We can't afford to do this."
North Pole Republican Rep. Tammie Wilson, though, called it a good use of surplus money that the state is getting from the high price of oil. Wilson said it will build up infrastructure and fund projects designed to lower the energy costs paid by Alaskans.
"We're bringing jobs right now; they are going to come to us this summer because we got this bill out," Wilson said.
The budget has money to work toward a Susitna dam project, build a Tanana River bridge, start an endowment for college scholarships and create a fund to pursue an in-state natural gas pipeline from the North Slope to Southcentral. There are scores of other projects, and the House Republican leadership said it also will also pay down $200 million in state debts.
Anchorage Rep. Les Gara and other Democrats on Friday tried and failed to reduce the amount in the budget for what they called the "money pit" Anchorage port expansion from $37.5 million to $20 million. Gara said by some estimates the projected cost of the project has gone from an initial $227 million to the latest figure provided by port director Bill Sheffield this week of $1.1 billion.
Gara said the cut would send a message the situation is out of hand. He suggested it might prompt the Municipality of Anchorage to put its own money into the project and have more incentive for oversight of it.
Doogan also wanted the cut. "I don't have any other tool to convey to the people who are running things that they have done a bad job and that they're going to have to make some substantial showing they're going to do better," he said.
Eagle River Republican Rep. Anna Fairclough agreed the port project is a "debacle." But she said that isn't the fault of Mayor Dan Sullivan's administration and it's already pursuing more oversight of a project that's important for the flow of goods into the state.
Chugiak Republican Rep. Bill Stoltze said there is already language in the budget aimed at the excesses of the port project.
It says the Legislature wants the Municipality of Anchorage to submit quarterly progress reports "detailing all cost overruns and any significant project scope changes."
Another Democratic amendment shot down on Friday was Doogan's attempt to take $2.2 billion out of the statutory budget reserve and put it in the Alaska Permanent Fund.