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Legislature nears final hours with key issues unresolved

Dermot Cole

JUNEAU -- A couple of weeks ago, Senate President Charlie Huggins shared his philosophy with reporters about the chance of spending Easter Sunday somewhere other than within the stately confines of the Capitol.

“If you went to see ‘Noah,’ you would understand why I advocate for us getting out of here before Easter,” Huggins told reporters. “We need to revisit some of our fundamentals, if you will.”

It turned out that the political mix of the 90-day session and the varied interest of 60 legislators took precedence over matters of the spirit, cinematic or otherwise.

As has become traditional in even-numbered years when key bills perish or pass in a last-minute flood during the final hours, Alaska legislators prepared to spend most of the Easter weekend on the legislative fundamentals, facing a 90-day deadline that arrives Sunday night.

The first major bill of the weekend was the costliest -- a $3 billion deposit into the retirement systems for public employees and teachers. The Senate approved it on a 20-0 vote Saturday afternoon.

House Bill 385, backed by Republicans and Democrats, had already passed the House.

“I  hope that we see a 20-to-0 vote, because this is the right thing for the people of Alaska,” said Anchorage Sen. Anna Fairclough.

“This transfer immediately improves the funding levels of PERS and TRS and lowers future funding needs,” actuary David Slishinsky wrote April 11.

Fairbanks Sen. Pete Kelly said a $2 billion infusion into the teachers’ system and a $1 billion addition to the public employees’ employees system would put both on a more solid foundation.

“This is a huge step that we’re taking,” Kelly said.

Anchorage Sen. Johnny Ellis said legislators and other state officials made bad decisions over the years and underfunded the system, which is why the appropriation was needed. He said he gives Gov. Sean Parnell a gold star for changing his mind and said legislators should not pat themselves on the back too much.

As lawmakers dealt with what is likely the largest fiscal note in state history, here are some of the other key issues still pending as of Saturday afternoon:

Gas pipeline: House debate on the governor’s proposed 67-page gas pipeline bill is expected Saturday evening. The measure, SB 138, has already passed the Senate.

Operating budget:  A conference committee charged with working out differences between the House and Senate versions of the operating budget had yet to complete its work.

Capital budget: One of the final pieces in the adjournment puzzle is the capital budget, a new version of which had yet to appear at midday Saturday. The Senate approved a $2.2 billion version of the capital budget April 11.

Education: The Senate Finance Committee approved a new proposal for education funding, adding money for several programs as part of an increase variously described as either a $50 million boost in education funding or twice that amount, depending upon the interpretation of specifics in the bill. There were conflicting claims on whether the new plan would prevent teacher layoffs across the state. A House version of an education bill won approval 29-11 on April 7.

Minimum wage: The Senate Finance Committee scheduled a hearing on a measure to raise the minimum wage, which would take an initiative off the August primary ballot, but it did not come up as of Saturday afternoon.

Knik Arm bridge: The proposed Knik Arm Crossing bill faced an uncertain future with the House having yet to concur on Senate amendments to the bill.

UAF power plant: One of the most costly projects in the budget is the $245 million for a new coal-fired power plant at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The plant, designed to replace a 50-year-old facility, would be funded with a mix of grants and loans.

UA building fund: The University of Alaska has a backlog of more than $1 billion in deferred maintenance, according to the UA Board of Regents. Creating a University Building Fund with SB 74 would allow the university to “charge departments for space they occupy.” The regents say the idea would allow for a better use of space and “encourage a cultural change from entitlement thinking to maximizing use of every square foot.

Court records: A measure to classify certain criminal court records as confidential when charges are not filed or dismissed or when a person is acquitted is pending in the House Finance Committee. SB 108 has already passed the House. On Saturday morning, the finance committee debated a new version of the bill that would have sharply limited the number of cases where secrecy would apply. SB 108 has passed the Senate.

Royalty oil: A proposed refinery subsidy plan that won House approval Thursday 35-5 remained pending in the Senate Finance Committee, where a hearing had been schedule but delayed Friday and again Saturday. The measure was aimed at providing financial aid to both Petro Star and Tesoro. 

Read more: As session wraps up, how to track bill progress online