JUNEAU -- The Alaska Legislature's special session got off to a slow start Wednesday, with the Senate too shorthanded to finish work on a sex-trafficking bill but gearing up for a fuller schedule Thursday, while a House committee won't start work on oil taxes until Friday.
Both chambers succeeded in passing one essential resolution, a suspension of rules to allow them to bring back two bills from the netherworld where unpassed legislation goes after adjournment. The resolution will enable them to consider two bills that died when the gavel hammered down the 27th Legislature on Monday morning -- the sex-trafficking measure and an in-state gas line bill.
The House passed the sex-trafficking bill in regular session, but the Senate adjourned before it got to the floor. The bill is not controversial.
While Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, was able to add an amendment to the bill that made instate trafficking in girls and women from rural Alaska on a par with bringing prostitutes from Seattle to Anchorage, the Senate had to put off final consideration until Thursday. The Senate needed 15 votes to have the bill's second and third readings on the same day, but there were only 14 senators.
Five were excused: Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage; Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River; Linda Menard and Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla; and Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, was absent -- some senators said they heard he went back home and would be back by Thursday. Menard was thought to be in town but was unavailable.
So Wielechowski's amendment was added to the bill without dissent, and then the bill was held for Thursday, when it would only need 11 votes to pass back to the House for concurrence.
There was also movement on the other two issues of the special session, both far more contentious than the sex trafficking bill: gas line legislation and reductions in oil taxes.
The Senate Community and Regional Affairs Committee scheduled a hearing on House Bill 9, the gas line bill, for Thursday. The committee gutted the House version last week, then let it die.
As passed by the House, the bill would have authorized the Alaska Gasline Development Corp., a state-chartered corporation housed in the Alaska Housing Finance Corp., to seek financing for the line, make deals with shippers, and then construct it -- all without having to go back to the Legislature for approval.
House Democrats and the Senate balked, arguing the small-diameter line form the North Slope to Southcentral would be so expensive to build that its gas would be prohibitively priced, leaving the state stuck with a failed mega-project. House speaker Mike Chenault, the measure's chief sponsor, said the bill would actually lead to the long-sought dream of a pipeline that tapped North Slope gas.
Gov. Sean Parnell said he agrees with the Senate that a gas line should get Legislative approval before it is built but wanted to see other parts of the House bill restored by the Senate to allow the project to progress.
Parnell also released his proposal for oil-tax reform, a blending of measures passed by the Senate and House designed to encourage new oil fields and more production at so-called legacy fields like Prudhoe and Kuparuk that still have plenty of oil.
Both the Senate and the House will simultaneously work on twin versions of the bill, foregoing the slower process in which one chamber finishes a piece of legislation before sending it to the other. The bills are numbered House Bill 3001 and Senate Bill 3001. They will likely look very different from each other by the time each chamber is through with its version, requiring reconciliation and negotiations if a final measure is to emerge.
The Senate Resources Committee is scheduled to start hearings Thursday afternoon with Revenue Commissioner Bryan Butcher. House Resources starts Friday afternoon on the bill.
In introducing the tax measure, Parnell sounded his usual theme: that without healthy tax breaks, the oil industry won't make the investments in Alaska that are needed to ensure more production.
"Alaskans are well aware that oil production is declining from our legacy fields," Parnell said in a prepared statement. "Without meaningful tax change for legacy fields as well as new fields, a larger percentage of Alaskans' resources will remain locked in the ground. We can avoid this risk and ensure a more prosperous future for Alaskans if we are willing to continue working to increase oil production in all of Alaska's fields."
Wielechowski, vice chairman of Senate Resources, also referenced an earlier theme: Parnell's bill gives away too much.
"It's simply a repackaged $2 billion giveaway, best I can tell," Wielechowski said after an initial read. "You shouldn't give money to the industry just to give money to the oil industry. It should be tied to increased production."
Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, donned a button after a Senate recess. "No Reduction Without More Production," it said.
Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, described Parnell's bill as a hybrid between legislation passed by the House and Senate.
"I've not had the time to run any numbers -- I've been looking at the concept," Hawker said. "Frankly the concept is a workable concept. It all depends how the numbers play."
Reach Richard Mauer at firstname.lastname@example.org or (907) 500-7388.