Lawmakers, Palin bicker to the finish

Sean Cockerham | Tribune Media Services
Gov. Sarah Palin, left, applauds April 19, 2009, in front of the Capitol after announcing former Major of Juneau, Dennis Egan, center, will fill the open Juneau Senate seat.
MICHAEL PENN / Juneau Empire
House democrats huddle in the chambers on the last day of the legislative session on Sunday.
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Speaker of the House Rep. Mike Chenault, right, R-Nikiski, enters the Senate late in Sunday's last day of the session to greet Senate President Sen. Gary Stevens, left, R-Kodiak. Majority Leader Sen. Johnny Ellis, center, and Sen. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, far right, are also pictured.
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

JUNEAU -- The 2009 session of the Alaska Legislature is scheduled to close today with tempers short and lawmakers battling with each other and with Gov. Sarah Palin.

There was a Saturday blowup when Fairbanks Republican Rep. Mike Kelly objected to appropriating state energy assistance money and suggested people in rural Alaska should cut wood rather than rely on the proposed state aid. Members of the Republican-led majority in the state House later huddled behind closed doors for much of the day, with lawmakers saying there were internal conflicts over personalities, bills that have not moved and what to do about $9 million that Palin wants for pursuing an in-state natural gas pipeline.

There was less drama in the state Senate. But the session is nearing an end with no conclusion in sight to the war that's dragged on for weeks between Palin and Senate Democrats over a vacant Juneau state Senate seat.

The governor's chief of staff sent senators a letter Saturday saying she's standing behind an appointee that's already been rejected and wants to have a meeting about it.

Saturday began with a confrontation in the House Finance Committee about what to do in regard to high energy costs in rural Alaska. The Legislature is poised to appropriate $9 million statewide for low-income heating assistance programs to assist. But Fairbanks Rep. Kelly said he thought it was supposed to be a one-time appropriation last year, and state revenues have dropped.

He said there are other programs for people who are needy and "not for any layabouts."

"I'd rather tell the guy, go out there and cut your own wood or do something for yourself. ... I don't know how many of the 200-plus villages have a wood supply within a rock toss, but there's a lot of them because I've been to a lot of them," he said.

Rep. Woodie Salmon, a Democrat from the village of Chalkyitsik, angrily responded that there have been millions of dollars in state subsidies for urban energy needs.

"They spent millions and millions of dollars on a coal plant, transmission lines, then they retire off the system, and then they don't help the rural areas," he said.

Kelly is the retired president of Golden Valley Electric Association in Fairbanks.

The Legislature is expected to approve the $9 million today.

There's another set of questions about a different $9 million Palin wants to help development of a proposed in-state gas pipeline from the North Slope to Southcentral Alaska.

The governor's request caused a furor this week when House leaders dropped it in the budget to the surprise of their colleagues on the House Finance Committee. Several of the committee members objected that it was the first they'd heard of it and complained that Palin officials never spoke to them.

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Les Gara argued the money was a giveaway to a single company. He said the description in the budget of what the money could be used for sounded exactly like the proposed $3.3 billion Enstar "bullet line" from the North Slope that would follow the Parks Highway south.

The governor's office countered that it only wanted the money and never asked for any language in the budget that would limit the spending to any single project.

That $9 million was then pulled from the budget. Most of it is expected to come back today in a different bill. But there is a lot of closed door debate over what restrictions to put on what the governor can do with the money. Some legislators advocate letting Palin do what she wants, but North Pole Republican Rep. John Coghill said confidence in the governor is "so low right now."

Then there's the governor's continuing dispute with Senate Democrats over the vacant Juneau seat. The letter from chief of staff Mike Nizich to senators said rejection of two Palin appointees to the seat was invalid because it happened behind closed doors. Nizich offered up a new state department of law opinion to back up that argument.

"While we recognize that there is a tradition for confirming such appointments in private, we have never agreed with this procedure and have doubts as to its constitutionality," said the opinion from assistant attorney general Mike Barnhill.

Palin has re-appointed one of her rejected appointees, Tim Grussendorf, and wants a new vote on him. But the Senate Democrats have their own legal opinions from legislative lawyers that says their rejection of Grussendorf was legal.

Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, said there are no plans to vote on Grussendorf again.

"I don't consider it a valid appointment," said Ellis, the Senate majority leader. "He was rejected."

Ellis said Palin has until Monday under the law to appoint someone else to the seat that's been open since Juneau Democratic Sen. Kim Elton resigned March 2. Nizich suggested Saturday that Palin and the nine Democratic senators find a time to meet soon and talk about what happens now.

"This stalemate has to be overcome ... a potential cycle of nominations and rejections or time-consuming litigation does not help Juneau's citizens," he wrote.

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