JUNEAU -- Oil taxes are expected to be a major issue this legislative session, with lawmakers needing to decide whether a change in the tax structure is necessary -- as Gov. Sean Parnell says it is -- to spur new oil production.
The focus in this regard will be on the Senate, where Parnell's tax-cut bill stalled last year after clearing the House. Senate leaders at the time said they didn't have the information needed to make a sound policy call and today there remains a divide as to what kind of change is needed -- if a change is needed at all.
Also expected to get attention during the session, which begins Tuesday: an explicit ban on texting while driving, education funding, Alaska's unfunded pension liability and saving for the future. Lawmakers will need to decide whether to extend Alaska's film incentive program, now set to expire next year, and whether to revive the coastal management program.
Bills pending at the end of last session, including one that would lengthen the legislative session from the current 90 days to 120 days, remain in play. Any bills not passed by the time lawmakers adjourn this year will die, meaning individual lawmakers will be eager to push pet legislation.
It's not clear how much heavy lifting will be done: This is an election year, and lawmakers will be antsy to return home. If the proposed redistricting plan is upheld in court, several legislators will face off in their new, respective districts.
Parnell has said changing Alaska's current tax regime is his top economic priority, casting a tax cut as a way to help reverse the trend of declining production and boost investment. The Senate's bipartisan majority bloc doesn't have oil taxes on its list of priorities but it could be an element of one of the caucus's priorities: finding ways to boost oil and gas development.
Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, and co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, has said he intends to look at issues including the progressive surcharge now triggered when a company's net profits hit $30 a barrel, tax credits and whether the state should continue taxing oil and gas production together. He's also said that he is interested in potential incentives to boost incremental production from Prudhoe and Kuparuk. House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, said education could be a "sleeper" issue, with lawmakers needing to consider a more permanent solution to helping school districts meet and address high energy costs. He also expects debate surrounding an explicit ban on text messaging, but he said whenever an issue like that comes up, there are corollary discussions on whether such things as use of cell phones to talk while driving should be curbed or banned.
Lawmakers in 2008 passed legislation that was intended to ban texting while driving even though it doesn't say texting anywhere in the law. The measure is being challenged in court.
Since technology is ever-changing, Chenault said it may be that lawmakers need to increase the penalty for distracted driving.
One of the more contentious issues of the last several years has been coastal management.
Coastal communities have long sought a greater say in development decisions that could affect their way of life, particularly with the future potential of offshore oil and gas development. Lawmakers last year could not agree on changes to the program, which lets states put conditions on certain activities on federal lands and waters, and it died.
Signatures are being gathered for a proposed initiative that would revive the program. Backers face a Tuesday deadline for submitting signatures if they hope to get the issue on this year's ballot.
House Minority Leader Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, said she will push to try to get a bill passed this session regardless of what happens with the initiative process -- which she also supports.
"We're elected to lead," she said, adding that thousands of people have signed petitions showing they want the program back.
By BECKY BOHRER