Senate committee takes up gas line bill

Richard Mauer

JUNEAU -- House members pressed the reset button Thursday when they appeared in the Senate Community and Regional Affairs Committee, dropping language like "neuter" and "eviscerate" to express their dismay over the committee's work on their in-state gas line bill.

Instead, on Day 2 of the special session, Rep. Mike Hawker and an aide patiently and politely reviewed last week's Senate changes to House Bill 9 while House Speaker Mike Chenault, the bill's sponsor, and his aide, Tom Wright, watched from the front row of audience seats.

The bill is one of three on the agenda set by Gov. Sean Parnell for the special session. The Legislature resolved the first item Thursday, when first the Senate, then the House, unanimously passed a sex trafficking and video testimony bill that had come up missing when the Senate adjourned early Monday morning.

The third item, a new bill by Parnell to cut oil taxes, gets its first hearing Thursday afternoon at the Senate Resources Committee. The House will open up hearings on the tax bill Friday.

The sex trafficking section of House Bill 359 has gotten the most publicity -- it would increase penalties for some forms of prostitution and make it easier to charge pimps who put girls and young women from rural Alaska out on city streets. But the Senate spent as much time Thursday on the part of the bill which has nothing to do with sex trafficking. It would allow video testimony to be used at any trial in state court when a witness couldn't appear because of distance and a personal issue such as poor health.

Sen. Hollis French, a former prosecutor, dissected the measure, signaling a future Supreme Court that the Legislature understood it was tangling with the 6th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution when it passed the bill. The amendment guarantees a defendant's right to confront an accuser in court. French, an Anchorage Democrat, said he expected state judges to only rarely permit video testimony because it could impinge on a lawyer's opportunity to examine the witness. But if a judge made a proper finding that video testimony was in the interest of justice, it should pass constitutional muster, French said.

Another lawyer in the Senate, Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, wasn't as sure.

"This will affect the rights of both plaintiffs and defendants," he said.

"Cross examination is the most powerful tool a defendant or a plaintiff has to get to the truth of what really happened in an event," Wielechowski said. "In just about every court case, you have opposing witnesses with completely different stories. How does the jury, how does the judge, figure out what really happened? You evaluate the person -- you see whether they're perspiring, you see whether they're squirming in their seat, you see when you ask them a question if they have small tics. These are things you pick up in person -- we do it subconsciously. But it's probably very hard to do over a video conference."

The measure passed the Senate 16-0, with four excused absences. It went back to the House to concur over changes made in the Senate, and it quickly passed there, 31-0, with eight absences (the 40th member, Carl Gatto, died April 10).

Chenault, the House Speaker, is the prime sponsor of House Bill 9, which would authorize a state-chartered corporation, the Alaska Gasline Development Corp., to build a pipeline from the North Slope to Southcentral Alaska. He was angered last week when the Senate took that provision and nearly everything else out of the bill, leaving just permission for AGDC to spend money and to keep trade secrets it learns during negotiations with oil companies and other businesses.

Chenault let Hawker, an Anchorage Republican, and Hawker's aide, Rena Delbridge, do the talking before the committee this time. Delbridge urged that elements from the House bill be returned to the Senate version: the authority to build the line without going back to the Legislature, the exemption of AGDC records from public disclosure, authority for the pipeline to act as a contract carrier instead of common carrier open to all shippers, even the authority to order local governments to sell it sand, gravel and other material if they have it available.

Delbridge and Hawker said that the AGDC would be hamstrung with "uncertainty" and would have difficulties negotiating with potential gas shippers and pipeline investors if it had to return to the Legislature to build the line.

But committee chairman Donny Olson, D-Nome, said it sounded like the House wanted to give the AGDC "an open checkbook" without proper checks and balances. He said he didn't believe the Legislature should waive its oversight role in the project, especially given the billions of dollars it would cost.

And what about all the drilling for gas about to happen in Cook Inlet? Olson asked. Discoveries there could easily eliminate the need for a pipeline from the North Slope, he said.

Hawker responded that the amount of recoverable gas in Cook Inlet is still unknown, while gas supplies on the North Slope are "unlimited, from our standpoint."

Olson said he would continue hearings on the bill at least through Friday before it moves on to two other Senate committees.

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