JUNEAU -- A major focus of the Legislature this week will be energy as five state House members travel to Washington, D.C., to urge drilling expansions, while state senators back home discuss oil taxes.
A bill co-sponsored by Congressman Don Young, R-Alaska, that would allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, touted as a way to spur domestic energy production and create jobs, is pending in the U.S. House.
Republican Reps. Anna Fairclough, Dan Saddler, Lance Pruitt and Mike Chenault and Democratic Rep. Reggie Joule, who caucuses with the House's Republican majority, are adding their voices to those of Alaska's congressional delegation and governor in seeking action.
Two other Republican lawmakers, state Reps. Charisse Millett and Kyle Johansen, also recently made the trip.
Chenault, R-Nikiski, said the goal is to give members of Congress information "that will help them make a good decision based upon the wants and the concerns of Alaskans."
Saddler, R-Eagle River, said having freshman lawmakers, such as himself and Pruitt, making the case is important, too, because it shows the current generation of Alaskans supports drilling.
"The long-term future of the state depends on the development of our resources," Saddler said.
While they're gone, hearings are expected to continue as the state Senate delves deeper into the oil tax issue. The Senate president has said his goal is to get a bill to the House by mid-March, about a month before the session ends.
Other issues on the schedule include use of state dollars to make up for federal cuts to an immunization program and a proposal that would prevent minors from talking on cellphones while driving.
Committees in both the House and Senate will consider legislation to establish an immunization program that would buy and distribute recommended vaccines to children and adults who otherwise could not get them. According to an analysis by the state health department, the program would provide vaccine for an estimated 47,000 children and about 110,000 doses of vaccine to adults.
Federal funding for an Alaska immunization program has dropped from $4.3 million in fiscal year 2010 to $700,000 for next fiscal year, according to the analysis and a sponsor statement. Because of that, the program, as of January, stopped providing all adult vaccines and select childhood vaccines, the analysis states.
The bill would substitute state funding for the decrease in federal funding through fiscal year 2015.
Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, and one of the sponsors of SB144, said the bill is intended as a short-term measure to ensure availability of vaccines until a more permanent solution is found. The governor has already proposed $700,000 for the program, matching the federal level. That means $2.9 million in additional state funding would be needed to restore the program to 2009 levels.
Giessel said she hopes there won't be a problem in getting the bill passed: "I think people realize how important it is," she said.
Rep. Bob Herron is the primary sponsor of the House version of the bill.
Also, the House Transportation Committee is scheduled to hear HB128, which would prohibit minors from talking on cellphones while driving.
Last year, a bill that would have restricted cellphone use for all drivers was spiked. But Rep. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, said she has renewed optimism for her bill's chances in part because it's narrower.
She said the measure would apply only to drivers younger than 18 and would make talking-while-driving a secondary offense. That means police could not stop a car just because the driver was on the phone. She said she didn't want people "pulled over for suspicion of being 16, or whatever."