On Day 91, Legislature looks to Constitution for limits

Bubble wrap and cardboard boxes fill the House Transportation Committee room in the Capitol.

JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) — For the Legislature, Monday was a bit like the morning after — Day 91, one day past the session length demanded by voters in 2006.

With the 2006 initiative ignored, lawmakers said they were obeying the Constitution with its 120-day limit — which actually is 121 days, according to the Alaska Supreme Court.

Still, the signs of an impending end of session were everywhere. Empty cardboard boxes and giant rolls of bubble wrap to protect computer monitors and other sensitive gear filled the House Transportation Committee room on the ground floor.

Legislators met in the bright sun and a breeze that flapped their clothes for a group photo of the 30th Legislature. A few minutes later, the six lawmakers whose fathers or grandfathers were associated with the Third Legislature stood for their own group photo on the Capitol steps.

The Third Legislature met in two regular sessions and a special session in 1963 and 1964. The six descendants were Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau (Gov. Bill Egan); Rep. Colleen Sullivan-Leonard, R-Wasilla (Rep. George M. Sullivan); Rep. Neal Foster, D-Nome (Sen. Neal W. Foster); Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage (Sen. Nicholas J. Begich); Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage (Rep. Joseph P. Josephson); and Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole (Sen. John B. “Jack” Coghill). Only Joe Josephson and Jack Coghill are still alive.

Earlier, the Senate met in a “technical session,” invented to meet the constitutional requirement that either the Senate or the House meet every three days. Sen. Peter Micciche left his normal place on the Senate floor to substitute for Senate President Pete Kelly’s on the podium. Five senators were on the floor, far too few to pass a bill.

The House, however, was all present — and it passed six bills or resolutions. Most were non-controversial. Among the measures passed was a farm bill, House Bill 315, that imposes secrecy requirements on state officials — they can no longer release personal information on farmers who import livestock or who have their animals and crops tested for disease. The bill allows state officials to go public with information when health issues are at stake.

“This would actually be a good privacy measure,” said Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage. “What this would do is prevent someone who requests that kind of information from actually getting your address, phone number and personal information.”

The bill passed 38-1, with only Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, voting against it. The bill was sent to the Senate.

The House Finance Committee, meanwhile, met on a new oil-tax bill — House Bill 411 — and heard from a couple of the Legislature’s experts who phoned in from Texas. The bill is designed to increase taxes on older fields, especially when oil prices are low, but the Senate has said it didn’t have enough time to review the measure even if it passes.

One representative sounded like a “no” in committee — Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole. She asked whether the new tax measure would put more oil in the trans-Alaska pipeline, then answered her own question based on the expert testimony — it wouldn’t.

The tax bill came as the price of oil has continued its slow but steady rise. It closed just under $72 a barrel Friday, the last price available, according to the Alaska Department of Revenue. The last time the price of oil was that high was in November 2014, but less oil is being produced in Alaska than it was then. Oil taxes and royalties once accounted for 85 percent of the state’s revenue.

In a prepared statement, Gov. Bill Walker said Monday that the Legislature still had plenty of work to do — but that the end was still in sight.

“I know legislators are working hard, and I thank them for their persistence in confronting Alaska's challenges. I am cautiously optimistic this session will end within the constitutional limit of 120 days, and without the overtime extensions that have frustrated Alaskans in and outside the Capitol for the past few years,” he said.

Walker praised the increase in the base student allocation, an education funding formula approved by the House over the weekend. He asked lawmakers to approve a series of criminal justice reforms that he introduced, including a measure to allow judges to consider out of state records before allowing a defendant to post bail. And, he said, he expected to soon see an operating budget to sign.

The budget is in a conference committee to resolve the differences between the House and Senate. The committee held an organizing meeting Saturday, but hasn’t had a public session since. It announced a working session for Tuesday afternoon.

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