Budget tops $3 billion in final push

Sean Cockerham | Tribune Media Services
Members of the House Minority, from left, Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, Bob Buch, D-Anchorage, Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, and Rep. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, confer on the House Floor before the beginning of session in Juneau April 17, 2010.
CHRIS MILLER / The Associated Press

JUNEAU -- Alaska lawmakers added more money to put the state construction budget over $3 billion and voted to expand the size of the Legislature as the 2010 legislative session enters its final hours.

Negotiations continue over cruise taxes, scholarships and other major issues.

The Legislature is to adjourn for the year today. Legislative action slowed to a crawl much of Saturday while lawmakers huddled behind closed doors. Action picked up in the evening, though, with a House vote at nearly midnight to amend the Alaska Constitution to add six seats to the Legislature. Supporters argue it would help keep rural Alaska from losing representation as a result of the growing population in urban areas.

The Senate already passed the measure, although the Senate version added 12 more legislators. The difference will have to be reconciled today. Alaska voters would then have the final say whether there should be more legislators, since it is a change to the Constitution.

The added seats would likely go to urban areas where population has grown. But advocates hope the bigger Legislature would at least preserve the number of seats representing rural Alaska after this year's Census and keep the big rural districts from getting even more spread out.

The House on Saturday evening also added more money to a state budget that Gov. Sean Parnell calls far too big. Total spending in the capital budget, which is generally for construction and maintenance, now stands at just more than $3 billion. About a third of it is federal money.

The finance committee on Saturday approved the budget, which has grown to 175 pages. Lawmakers expect Parnell to veto projects to cut it down.

"It verges on irresponsible spending, but I suspect the governor will have a significant hand in remedying that," said Anchorage Republican Rep. Mike Hawker, co-chair of the finance committee.

The House will vote on the budget today before lawmakers adjourn for the year.

Among the money added by the finance committee on Saturday was $750,000 for an independent study of the environmental and social consequences of developing the massive Pebble gold and copper deposit in Southwest Alaska. The panel also added funding for tourism marketing, which now looks as though it's going to get an additional $7 million in the coming year.

House members also set aside $82 million in case the state loses its appeals of a court judgment saying Alaska charged out-of-state commercial fishermen too much for permits. Representatives also formally abandoned a planned public relations campaign to fight endangered species act listings. The budget proposes to give the $1.5 million instead to the state commerce department to decide what it wants to do about "climate and environmental change."

Another issue going into today's adjournment is a bill to require corporations and unions to report their campaign expenditures, and provide disclaimers in political ads saying who is behind the commercials. The House Finance Committee stripped out the bill's requirement that the disclaimer be read aloud in the commercial, although it would still be listed on the screen.

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Les Gara argued against the change, saying it pretty much gutted the bill. "People are not going to hear who is going to try to buy the election," he said.

But his argument lost. Republican members of the committee argued reading the three largest contributors out loud would eat up too much of the commercial, and that contributors will still be disclosed on the screen. The fight will likely be repeated today when the bill reaches the House floor for a vote.

Other big issues left in the session remained on hold Saturday, as lawmakers focused on passing noncontroversial bills like outlawing bestiality. The House is holding bills the Senate wants and vice versa, which kept gamesmanship alive into the final hours.

"Everybody is trying to figure out how we get to the end of session. Everything is in motion," said House Minority Leader Beth Kerttula, a Juneau Democrat.

One big piece in play is a proposal to lower the cruise ship passenger tax that voters approved in 2006. The cruise industry has reached an agreement with the state attorney general to drop a lawsuit if the tax is lowered. Saturday's negotiations among lawmakers focused on what towns should get money from part of the tax that remains.

That will affect how legislators vote on the tax cut.

Lawmakers were also negotiating over a college scholarship program for Alaska high school students. Parnell has insisted the Legislature pass a bill giving scholarships to students who get good enough grades and take required courses.

A key piece of the endgame in Juneau is a bill to tax natural gas differently than oil. The Parnell administration argues against the bill. But Sitka Republican Sen. Bert Stedman says the state could lose billions if it's not passed and a natural gas pipeline is built to the Lower 48. House members worry that if they don't pass the bill, Stedman and other senators could kill bills they want.

"Everything is contingent on certain things passing," said House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski.

A bill that's been pushed hard by rural lawmakers to give coastal communities more say over local oil and gas development died Saturday.

But rural legislators appear to have struck a deal for a bill that would steer about $38 million annually to rural school construction.

It's aimed at a 10-year-old court ruling that found Alaska's system of funding for new and renovated schools was unconstitutional. The measure passed the Senate and awaits a vote today in the state House.