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Extended Juneau session ends with agreements on capital budget, education

JUNEAU -- The Alaska Legislature ended its 2014 Friday, saying it didn't need to obey the voter-adopted 90-day session limit legislators blew past Sunday and kept going as if the law didn't exist.

On the session's last day, agreements were finally reached on some key issues, including billions of dollars for the capital budget and a bill that will allow borrowing hundreds of millions of dollars more to build a bridge across Knik Arm.

Earlier in the session, lawmakers passed a natural gas pipeline bill that will entail spending tens of million of dollars to determine whether to spend billions on a pipeline to a Nikiski liquefied natural gas export plant.

Gov. Sean Parnell praised the session as "historic," and praised himself and legislators for reining in spending even while they passed his new spending initiatives, such as a subsidy for refineries and new road and bridge projects.

Senate Democratic leader Hollis French, D-Anchorage, warned that while the Republican-led majority was underfunding schools, Alaska’s deficit spending was depleting the state's savings and bringing the edge of the "fiscal cliff" closer.

"We're falling off a fiscal cliff, and it is not the fall that hurts, it's the landing," he said.

Some senior lawmakers raised questions about the effectiveness of the 90-day legislative session, with one calling it a "failed experiment.”

Shortened timelines allow legislators to pass controversial proposals without public scrutiny, with many key bills skipping public input between introduction and the final vote. That typically happens with the secretive capital budget process, in which billions can be spent without public scrutiny, but numerous other bills get rushed as well.

House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, said it is possible for the Legislature to get its work done during the 90-day session, but there's a cost.

"During the 90-day session, who gets shorted in the process is the public," he said.

He contrasted the 90-day regular session with the direct focus on on House Bill 278, the education bill. The measure was hammered out in a conference committee when the House and Senate couldn't agree on bill versions.

The committee, chaired by Rep. Mike Hawker and Sen. Kevin Meyer, both Anchorage Republicans, spent hours in public deliberations, enabling the public to see points of conflict, such as the base student allocation and charter school funding that were resolved in a compromise that was finalized Friday.

Chenault praised that public process, noting the conference committee’s work was done "all in the light of day."

That may have been a reference to a Senate session Sunday that ran until 4 a.m.

It was Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, who called the 90-day session a failed experiment. That session law is an attempt to get around the Alaska Constitution's 120-day limit by creating a shorter statutory limit.

Ellis pointed out that it was three former legislators, Tom Wagoner, Gretchen Guess and Jay Ramras, who used the initiative process to win approval of shorter sessions after they could not persuade their fellow legislators to pass a constitutional amendment. It was eventually passed by voters with less than 51 percent of the statewide vote.

Senate President Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, offered conflicting views, saying "I support the initiative" even though the Senate he leads failed to comply with it.

He said he and Chenault were in agreement that the actions taken after the end of the 90-day session are legal, despite the law.

"The speaker and I talked about that; there is no discomfort with what we did," Huggins said, following the session.

Even though legislators did not complete their work done on time, that will actually mean a boost of their pay. Each legislator gets $237 per day in session per diem, in addition to their $50,400 annual salaries. The extra week's work means each legislator will pocket an additional $1,185 for going extended time, partly to defray expenses. Juneau legislators get a lesser amount.

Expenses from the lengthy session include rental cars for legislators who had already put their personal vehicles on the ferry, anticipating the session ending on time.

Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com.