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Senate shuts down committees as Legislature's next deadline nears

Alaska Senate President Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, says his chamber shouldn’t be measured only by what it’s doing in public view. (Nathaniel Herz / Alaska Dispatch News)

JUNEAU — The Alaska House and Senate are taking sharply different approaches amid their leaders' end-of-session negotiations, with the House pressing forward with an array of legislation as the Senate sends its committees to cold storage.

Since last week, House committees have held hearings on more than 30 bills, on subjects ranging from the legalization of agricultural hemp to the creation of an aquatic invasive species response fund.

The House Labor and Commerce Committee met Wednesday to consider changing a tax reduction for beer brewers that's costing the state $2.6 million a year — with one-third of the reductions claimed by out-of-state breweries.

The Senate, meanwhile, has held hearings on two bills since last week — House proposals to increase oil taxes and levy a statewide income tax. Senators have held just one hearing this week, on oil taxes Thursday morning, and their only floor vote so far is Wednesday's unanimous approval of a resolution commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Alaska Purchase.

The Republican-led majority has also stopped holding news conferences and briefings with reporters, with a spokesperson saying they'll be held "as needed."

Even as the two chambers diverge on procedures, their policies are also in conflict — especially on this session's key issue, closing the state's budget deficit. The Senate majority says it favors deeper budget cuts and opposes the statewide income tax supported by the largely Democratic House majority.

The different approaches also raise questions about how efficiently lawmakers are using their time, since their daily expense payments have risen to $295 — with the exception of four legislators who have asked to keep a lower rate of $213: Rep. Jason Grenn, i-Anchorage, Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage and two Wasilla Republicans, Rep. Cathy Tilton and Sen. Mike Dunleavy.

Senate leaders said that even without many public proceedings, they're still working to resolve their differences with the House over deficit-reduction proposals. Senators are trying to reach a consensus on how to approach big bills like the House oil-tax legislation, said Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, the majority leader.

"There's a lot of work going on. If you want to measure it by what is public, you'll get the wrong impression," said Senate President Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, who ducked into a legislators-only cafeteria as a reporter pressed him for specifics.

Kelly subsequently issued a statement through the spokesperson for his majority, Daniel McDonald, restating a previous pledge by the Senate to narrow its focus to deficit-related bills after the Legislature's 90th day, which was April 16.

A 2006 citizens initiative set 90 days as lawmakers' deadline for adjournment, but the Legislature has ignored it this year, and is now in its third week of overtime, working under a 121-day deadline in the state Constitution.

"The Senate majority said it would get its work done within 90 days and then shut down activity not related to a fiscal solution," Kelly's statement said. "This is what that looks like."

McDonald didn't respond when asked for specific examples of the Senate's actions this week to move the Legislature toward a budget deal. But at a Tuesday news conference, one House leader, Rep. Neal Foster, D-Nome, rattled off a list of joint House-Senate meetings.

Foster, co-chair of the House Finance Committee, said he would meet Tuesday with one of his Senate Finance Committee counterparts, Eagle River Republican Anna MacKinnon. House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, was scheduled to meet with Kelly, his fellow presiding officer, Foster added.

Rep. Neal Foster, of Nome, center, listens at a news conference in November. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

"We know that we're far apart on the issues. But I think really the only thing that's going to solve this is communication — sitting down at one table rather than having our fights, whether it be over the media or through third parties or whatever," Foster said. "We're having those meetings and we intend to continue to have those meetings, and that's really the best that we can do right now."

But another top Democrat, House majority leader Chris Tuck of Anchorage, said he thinks the Senate should be doing more business in public.

"I don't think they've done enough work (on the deficit reduction measures) to know what questions to ask," he said. "So, fire up your committees."

Senate leaders said earlier in the legislative session they were considering sending some of their colleagues home after 90 days, then bringing them back once a deficit-reduction deal was negotiated — so that they wouldn't be collecting per diem in the meantime.

But all 20 senators were present at Wednesday's floor session. In interviews, several majority members said it makes sense to stay in Juneau for budget and deficit-reduction discussions, even if hearings on other bills aren't taking place.

"You need to be here to represent your constituents and you can't do that twiddling your thumbs somewhere else," said Sitka Republican Sen. Bert Stedman. "Everybody should stay here and get the problem fixed."

If the Senate were to send members home, it could delay negotiations when rank-and-file members need to help leaders make big decisions, said Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole.

Soldotna Republican Peter Micciche sits at a news conference in January. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

"Frankly, most members are involved in some aspects of this final processing and these final negotiations," said Micciche, the Senate majority leader.

Another explanation for the different approaches taken by the two chambers is the House's new leadership, with Democrats in control for the first time in more than two decades.

Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, said he's surprised the Senate isn't using its extra time in Juneau to advance its own priorities while the House holds hearings on climate change and anti-discrimination legislation that the previous, Republican-led majority never advanced.

The Senate, by contrast, remained under Republican control after last year's election — meaning members may not have the same long wish-list of legislation.

"We haven't had chairmanships for a quarter century. These things couldn't get any oxygen before," Josephson said, referring to the climate change and anti-discrimination bills. "Why wouldn't we want to have hearings?"

But some observers acknowledged that an absence of public meetings and debate can sometimes signify behind-the-scenes progress.

Last month, House and Senate leaders were making dueling pronouncements at news conferences and in opinion pieces.

Kelly, the Senate president, said often that his chamber is "the only thing standing" between Alaska and an income tax, while Anchorage Republican Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, member of the House leadership, warned senators at a news conference that if they think they can leave Juneau with a limited deficit-reduction package: "They've got another thing coming."

"Big public statements in an emotional flair become very difficult to back away from," said Jim Ayers, chief of staff to former Gov. Tony Knowles. Perhaps, he said, "people are rising above their egos and the lines they've drawn in the dirt, and actually having discussions about what's good for the state of Alaska and future generations."

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