JUNEAU -- Alaskans are about to be $1,200 richer.
State legislators late Thursday passed a nearly $1 billion package of energy relief measures, including the hefty "resource rebate" for Alaska residents.
The action capped a long day of tense negotiations between House and Senate leaders to iron out differences in their respective versions of the legislation ahead of a midnight deadline, the scheduled end of the 30-day special session.
The final action came with about three hours to spare as the House of Representatives voted 35-3 to accept some changes the Senate had made.
"I am just real pleased with the relief we've provided," said Rep. Mary Nelson, D-Bethel. "This is a big deal. This is a big night for Alaskans."
Passage of the energy package was the Legislature's second major action of the special session. On Aug. 1, lawmakers approved an exclusive natural gas pipeline license for TransCanada Corp.
Gov. Sarah Palin is almost certain to sign the bill to pay Alaskans the rebate.
It was Palin, after all, who last month proposed that lawmakers pay out a $1,200 resource rebate as a way for the state to share some of its multibillion-dollar oil revenue surplus with Alaska residents.
The idea for a people's payment, however, originated in January with Haines Republican Rep. Bill Thomas, a commercial fisherman who suggested a $1,000 rebate, saying he was moved by a legally blind and diabetic friend forced to cut firewood for lack of money to buy heating fuel.
The governor also asked lawmakers to temporarily suspend the state's motor fuel tax, which is 8 cents on a gallon of gasoline. The suspension, which legislators passed, also covers taxes on diesel and other fuels used by truckers, commercial fishermen and pilots.
The resource rebate will be tacked onto Alaska Permanent Fund dividend checks going out this fall.
This year's dividend already was expected to be a big one -- a record, in fact -- at more than $2,000. With the rebate added on, the check likely will tally more than $3,200.
What's more, Alaskans might receive their dividends sooner than normal this year.
The current schedule has the first payments going out as direct deposits beginning Oct. 2 with paper checks going out by mid-November.
Now state officials are aiming to start dividends rolling perhaps in September as a way to get cash into rural Alaskans' hands faster to buy winter supplies of heating oil, said Jerry Burnett, an official in the Department of Revenue.
The energy relief package also includes money to expand the state's Power Cost Equalization program, which provides electricity subsidies in rural areas where power costs are much higher than in the state's major city, Anchorage.
Anchorage Republican Rep. Kevin Meyer, a lead architect of House budget bills, said the energy relief package should help residents across a vast and economically diverse state.
"We did a good job of addressing rural Alaska's needs," said Meyer, speaking of the electricity subsidy. "Suspending the 8-cent fuel tax will help people who drive a lot in the urban areas."
Many lawmakers fretted over distributing $1,200 in free cash to residents. Some questioned whether rich people should get it, whether it was good public policy in an election year, and whether some might use it not for energy but for a big-screen TV set. One lawmaker, Rep. Harry Crawford, D-Anchorage, suggested a good bit of the money might "go up people's noses."
But Meyer said he and other lawmakers figure individual Alaskans know better than government how to spend their money. And because the state is fat with cash, many lawmakers felt it was only right to share some with strapped Alaskans, he said.
Surely Alaskans are unique among Americans this year. In what other state will citizens collect the triple crown of a resource rebate, the Permanent Fund dividend and the federal economic stimulus payment?
House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez, said it took determination to bring lawmakers to their two big decisions of the special session -- the TransCanada license and the energy relief. He said this is his last session as speaker.
"We're outta here," said Harris, packing a suitcase for home.
Find Wesley Loy online at adn.com/contact/wloy or call him in Juneau at 586-1531.
By WESLEY LOY