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Stimulus funds pending as Legislature winds down

Sean CockerhamMcClatchy-Tribune News Service

JUNEAU -- With just one week left before the Alaska Legislature adjourns for the year, the conflict between Gov. Sarah Palin and lawmakers over taking federal economic stimulus money is the dominant issue left.

In fact, legislative leaders don't seem intent on doing a whole lot else this year.

Just nine of the 419 bills introduced have passed through the full Legislature so far, and while many more will pass in the frenzied final week, there is little desire to make major state policy changes in what Senate President Gary Stevens conceded is basically a session of preserving the status quo.

There's still a chance that bills will pass increasing the state minimum wage, requiring parental notification when a teenager gets an abortion, expanding Alaska children's health insurance for lower-income families and stopping the state, including the Permanent Fund, from investing in companies doing business in Sudan, the African country whose government has been blamed for genocidal killing in the Darfur region.

Legislators will also vote Thursday on approving the governor's appointees, including attorney general Wayne Anthony Ross, who has proven controversial but is still likely to be confirmed.

Palin herself will be leaving Alaska this week to attend the Vanderburgh County Right to Life dinner in Evansville, Ind. on Thursday, as well as an event for special-needs children. Fairbanks Republican Rep. Jay Ramras questioned her leaving town right at the end of the session, when critical decisions are being made.

"There are some concerns (in the Capitol) about the focus of our chief executive because she's taken a speaking engagement in Indiana for a 36-hour period with only 72 hours left in the legislative session," Ramras said.

Palin, who has barely left Alaska during the legislative session, is clearly irritated.

"I'll be gone for one day. I already have been on record with lawmakers on this. I told lawmakers, you know what, 'Please, don't make me feel that I have to ask you permission, lawmakers, to leave the capital city,' " Palin said.

REPLACE, DON'T ADD

Legislators say the biggest question left is what happens with the $930.7 million in federal economic stimulus money that Alaska state government is eligible to get. Both the House and Senate want to accept every penny of the money. But Palin, who will have the final say through vetoes, has balked at taking one-third of it, including money for schools, energy assistance and social services.

Palin now says she'll accept the federal money if the Legislature agrees to use some of it to replace state spending. For example, she wants to cut 93 million state dollars that would go to schools -- and then award the schools that same amount in federal stimulus money to make up the difference.

That could be a tough sell with legislators. School districts are pushing hard to get the stimulus money on top of what they'd otherwise get from the state -- not instead of.

There are questions about whether Palin's plan is legal under the federal stimulus law as well. Anchorage Democratic Rep. Mike Doogan said using the dollars just to replace state spending goes against the purpose of Congress.

"The idea is putting more money into the economy," Doogan said.

Palin said she has philosophical objections to the stimulus, given the federal deficit. She also said the public will expect programs funded with stimulus dollars to continue after the federal money runs out -- and pressure the state to pay for them.

Palin said her plan to use stimulus money to replace state money is legal and will save money. "I'll feel better about it because then those dollars won't just be additional dollars, they'll be replacement dollars," the governor said.

LITTLE LEFT TO DO

The other main thing legislators must do before they leave town is work out differences on how much the state spends next year. That shouldn't be much of an issue, since there is general agreement on a basically status quo budget for state operations and minimal new state spending on construction projects. The bottom line is an expected draw of about $1.2 billion from savings to pay for next year's budget -- on top of taking a similar amount from reserves this year.

Legislators also plan to hash out what they can do to help with regulatory and right-of-way issues for the proposed in-state natural gas pipeline from the North Slope to Cook Inlet. And most lawmakers agree a bill letting the state revenue department lend money to the state student loan corporation needs to pass.

The student loan corporation normally sells bonds to finance college loans, but the poor financial markets have kept the bonds from selling. That's forced the state to stop processing student loan applications for the 2010 and 2011 school years.

Other than that, legislative leaders say there's not much they really need to do.

Members of the state Senate minority complain that it has been a very slow year in Juneau. "We're doing Marmot Day and license plates and naming bridges and naming the building next door and that sort of thing," said Anchorage Republican Sen. Con Bunde. "Not legislation of great consequence."

The Legislature is on a two-year schedule, though, so bills that don't pass in this 90-day session do not have to start over next year in the slow climb up through committees.

State House Speaker Mike Chenault, a Nikiski Republican, said the budget and stimulus have kept lawmakers busy and they shouldn't be judged on passing few bills.

"We don't have to pass bills. Usually bills take away people's rights in some form or fashion," he said.

Find Sean Cockerham at adn.com/contact/scockerham.


By SEAN COCKERHAM
scockerham@adn.com