Eye on the Capitol: Week 11 analysis and review
Less than two weeks are left to cross the finish line, and the Capitol has the feeling of a college dorm at exam time, with students working overtime to catch up on classes they cut or reading they failed to do.
Only this time, you have to feel sorry for the students: They’re taking 18 hours of credits. Many of those are courses crammed full of material difficult to wade through — classes like physics, statistics and Russian — knowledge that builds upon knowledge.
Technically, the legislative session is supposed to last 90 days. The ninetieth day falls on April 20, which also happens to be Easter Sunday. Majority leaders have said they want to be out by April 18, Good Friday, so as of Monday, April 7, we may have 12 days left instead of 14, barring an extended or special session.
Skit night, an insight into what goes on behind the scenes
On Saturday night, lawmakers filled Centennial Hall for the annual skits produced by legislative staffers. I’ve never been to one before. This has a frat house feel to it — or maybe it’s better described as the house elves at Hogwarts being set free to put on a show and say what they really think about their masters. A lot of it’s funny. Much of it is spot on. Some of the humor, though, is cruel.
The ad hoc house band is the best part. The party favors included a condom with a mock label that said, “Courtesy of Senator Dyson” and a popsicle stick fashioned to look like pregnancy test. I can’t say more about some of the gags than this. I’m told the tradition is “what happens at the skits, stays at the skits.” The proceeds go to charity.
Although I have to say one video that ran during the skits, “Chariots of Feige,” played through my head as I watched a House Resources Committee hearing on Gavel to Gavel on Sunday. To the tune of Chariots of Fire, the skit featured Rep. Eric Feige running with jogging shorts, but with his coat and tie on. It is a nod to the the lawmaker’s unstinting formality.
House Resources Marathon
Somehow the video and the theme song seems appropriate at this time because the House Resources Committee is engaged in a marathon.
The committee met for about seven hours this weekend to wade through more than two dozen amendments to SB 138, the governor’s natural gas legislation, which lays out the road map for developing a liquefied natural gas project.
Natural Resources Commissioner Joe Balash even shed his coat and tie for a maroon jogging outfit. There’s no doubt Balash and Deputy Commissioner of Revenue Mike “Fish” Palowski are the track stars of the administration. They have to have logged at least 60 hours of committee meetings this session.
You have to admire the work of the committee. There are clearly different levels of understanding about the intricacies of the legislation. Some have master’s degrees in oil and gas legislation. Some are working on their bachelor’s. But there was no “dumb” question. Each was treated with respect.
The committee this weekend did get into some pretty arcane fine-tuning of the legislation, and it’s important. Some of these details could potentially mean billions of dollars over time to the state. An “or” placed where there should be an “and,” or visa versa, makes a critical difference in the final outcome.
There was an extensive discussion about whether oil companies should be able to deduct expenses for oil produced while working a gas lease. The two are interlinked. SB 138 allows companies to deduct expenses, even when oil is produced, to incentivize gas production. Some lawmakers are worried that this oil tax break would come on top of SB 21, the oil tax measure lawmakers passed last session, changing the tax structure.
Lawmakers talked about what should be considered the “point of production,” the well where the oil and gas is initially produced. With LNG, do you include the lines that send the gas to the treatment plant on the North Slope? This is one example of many about the kinds of details lawmakers delved into.
The general theme this weekend was a tug-of-war over whether to keep the language of the bill broad or add more specifics. The administration pushed to keep the terms of the bill more general to keep options on the table. Rep. Peggy Wilson, a Republican from Wrangell, agreed and said the committee wouldn’t want to interfere with some kind of a creative solution to a problem that might arise in the process.
Two Democrats on the committee, representatives Geran Tarr and Scott Kawasaki, as well as Republican Rep. Paul Seaton, wanted specific language inserted to make sure the state and municipalities aren’t shortchanged. Most of their amendments were withdrawn or defeated.
House majority leaders hope to move SB 138 out of the House Resources Committee early this week so it can be vetted by two other panels; the House finance and labor and commerce committees.
Education spending battle escalates
The work in the House Resources Committee was given as the reason why the House floor debate on the education spending bill was punted until Monday. HB 278 has many controversial provisions that foreshadow a long debate.
After the House Finance Committee finished its work on the bill last week, it made some big changes — including an increase in the base student allocation (BSA), one of the components in a complicated formula used to calculate how much the state spends per student.
The committee included a $300 increase in the BSA over three years and adjusted a key component in the school funding equation to favor large schools in urban districts.
This provision is expected to be hotly debated by rural lawmakers, who fear it shortchanges rural districts that have been subjected to rising costs more extreme than those in urban Alaska.
Perhaps one of the most controversial provisions the committee inserted into HB 278 deals with the debt the state owes to the teachers’ retirement system, a plan Gov. Sean Parnell calls “immoral” because it spreads out the payments over a longer time frame. The governor says it wrongly forces future generations to bear the burden of debt they didn’t create. Supporters of this plan say it’s one way to put the brakes on one of the major cost drivers in education spending. “Immoral” is pretty strong language from the governor, who has his own plan to pay down state retirement debt. It remains to be seen if this provision will survive.
The fourth branch of government: the public
We are told in civics class there are three branches of government: legislative, executive and judiciary. But let’s not forget the public. When awakened and angry, it can wield power over legislative and executive branches that shouldn’t be underestimated.
Senate leaders declared HB 77 was officially dead late Thursday night. This was the controversial land and water use bill that gave the Department of Natural Resources commissioner expanded powers. Opponents claimed it cut the public out of the process. The prospect of the controversial Pebble Mine was also an undercurrent throughout the debate.
Sen. Cathy Giessel, chairwoman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, said she felt the bill was well-intended but divided the state. She pulled out two stacks of e-mails, each about a foot tall. The pile against HB 77 was slightly higher.
Although it’s not something that’s been openly stated, some lawmakers feel anger over HB 77 could translate into increased turnout in the August primary where there’s a referendum on SB 21, an oil tax reform measure which passed last session. They worry these voters will kill the new law.
The same thing might happen with education.
As the membership in the grassroots group Great Alaska Schools swells past 1,500, there’s an undercurrent of feeling circulating. Again, it’s not openly stated, but many of the members believe SB 21 is responsible for the state’s $2 billion revenue shortfall and future deficits in the forecast.
It’s still too early to determine SB 21’s impact on state revenues.It may actually be favorable because it’s designed to bring in more money at lower oil prices.
In any case, it’s hard to believe the public isn’t having an impact.
Early in the session, legislative leaders said they weren’t inclined to raise the BSA. But now, as we approach the end of session, both the House and Senate have proposals which offer substantial increases in education spending — but still far short of what Democrats and Great Alaska Schools are pushing for.
On Friday, more than a hundred people waved signs and chanted slogans on the Capitol steps, calling for lawmakers to dip into budget reserves to fund education to the fullest extent and avert layoffs.
When the governor called 2014 the education session, he probably wasn’t expecting to open up a Pandora’s box of public discontent.
There’s always the butterfly of hope, that whatever is done between now and the end of session will be the right thing — or at least the best possible compromise.