Legislature adjourns on time

Wesley LoyPetroleum News

JUNEAU - The Alaska Legislature adjourned with time to spare Sunday and the leadership crowed about a raft of achievements, but Gov. Sarah Palin complained about "largess" in budgets the lawmakers passed. Ranking Republican legislators pointed out projects the governor requested comprised 62 percent of the $2.9 billion capital budget approved Sunday, the most high-profile of state spending plans.

The second-year Republican governor said she expects to veto some items just as she did last year, and suggested she might even ax some of her own.

"We will scour and scrutinize and cut," said Palin, noting government spending must be restrained.

The House and Senate each banged the gavel to close the proceedings around lunchtime on day 90 of the session, a departure from the past when lawmakers often worked right up to midnight on the last day. It was the first session since voters mandated a time limit of 90 days instead of 121.

While some members said the shorter session meant some legislation was rushed or didn't get adequate hearings, the leadership called it a highly productive year.

"This is the most accomplished Legislature in the last two decades," said Senate President Lyda Green, the Wasilla Republican who for two years held a bipartisan majority together.

One thing the governor and lawmakers of every political stripe could agree on was a triumph was the amount of money stashed away as savings.

Lawmakers put an unprecedented $5 billion into two state rainy-day accounts. The savings came from billions of surplus dollars the state expects to rake in as a result of high oil prices and last year's oil tax hike.

Most of the savings went into the Constitutional Budget Reserve, a state account lawmakers tap during lean years to cover the costs of government.

Among dozens of proposed laws that died this year was a bill from Rep. Ralph Samuels, R-Anchorage, to limit spending from the constitutional reserve. Samuels, the House majority leader, vowed to try again next year.

The session unfolded in the continuing shadow of a federal corruption probe that so far has resulted in bribery convictions against three former legislators.

"This has obviously been a time of rebuilding trust with the Alaska public," said House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez.

The session also was marked by occasional fits of tough words exchanged between Palin and lawmakers over the budget. At one point, lawmakers loaded $70 million worth of hometown projects into a supplemental funding request Palin submitted - projects she had vetoed last year. She vetoed most of them again.

The biggest news from Palin, however, had to be her surprise announcement that she'll give birth to her fifth child in May.

While the saving was huge, so was the spending. Lawmakers passed a record $11 billion operating budget, which covers state employee pay and the costs of maintaining buildings and equipment.

The $2.9 billion capital budget is packed with hundreds of projects to build road and fire stations, improve schools and pay for pet projects as diverse as windmills and football field AstroTurf.

Whether the capital budget is a record was hard to say for certain Sunday.

"It is absolutely huge," confirmed Juneau Democratic Rep. Beth Kerttula, the House minority leader.

But she and most other lawmakers voted for it because they say it'll pay for needed building and other projects across the state.

Among other legislation that passed, lawmakers approved a bill to ask voters to authorize a $315 million bond sale to pay for roads and bridges across the state.

Assuming they survive the vote and Palin's veto pen, big-ticket items for Anchorage include $25 million for the Anchorage port expansion and $15 million to start work on a new University of Alaska Anchorage sports arena.

Lawmakers also passed a bill boosting education spending, a comprehensive crime bill, a bill to tighten security for credit card and other personal information, and bills to share state revenue with cities and cover retirement obligations.

Another bill heading to the governor for her signature will give tax credits to spur an Alaska filmmaking industry. Palin also requested and won bills to cut the state business license fee and make some military members eligible for free hunting and fishing licenses.

Providing for state energy needs was a major theme throughout the session.

Lawmakers toyed for weeks with the idea of giving Alaskans perhaps $500 each as compensation for high heating and electricity costs.

In the end, lawmakers didn't go with the "energy rebate," choosing instead to put $300 million in home weatherization programs and $10 million into a heating assistance program for the poor.

The energy rebate posed a dilemma, said Anchorage Republican Rep. Kevin Meyer, who co-chairs the budget-writing House Finance Committee.

"Some people really wanted it," he said. "Some people said please don't start another government handout. Whatever you do, somebody's not going to be happy."

Palin said she was disappointed lawmakers let a bill die requiring girls under 17 to get parental consent for an abortion.

"My belief is parents have the right to know about the health and welfare of their children," she said.

Many legislators left the Capitol for the airport or the ferry dock almost immediately after adjournment, and hallways were jammed with packing boxes.

But lawmakers likely won't be gone for long. Palin has called a special session beginning June 3 to consider possibly awarding a state license and financial incentives to a prospective natural gas pipeline builder.

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