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Friday, April 27, 2012

Passions rise in Capitol

JUNEAU EMPIRE
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Senate President Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, center, watches as senators read rule books before adjourning their chamber sine die from this year's special legislative session.
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The Alaska Senate adjourned from the special session, a move that could end the session if the House of Representatives follows suit in the next three days.

The move was one more step in an increasingly bitter battle between Gov. Sean Parnell, the Senate, and the House of Representatives, following Parnell’s extraordinary move to pull his struggling oil tax break bill from session consideration late Wednesday.

The Senate’s move to adjourn leaves one of the session’s lesser issues, the House Bill 9 gas pipeline bill, in limbo. It will be dead if the House also adjourns.

The Senate Thursday passed a “Sense of the Senate” statement calling Parnell’s pulling of his oil tax bill “unprecedented and unauthorized,” but said it left them no choice but to adjourn the session “sine die,” or for the final time.

The vote to adjourn was 14-2, with all members of the Bipartisan Senate Working Group caucus voting in favor, and the only two members of the Senate Republican Minority present voting against.

The governor’s action on oil taxes, along with his claim that some senators did not believe oil production was declining, inflamed passions Thursday.

Sen. Joe Paskvan, D-Fairbanks, called Parnell’s statements Wednesday when he removed the oil tax bill from the Legislature’s call “desperate.”

He also said Parnell’s comment about senators not believing there was an oil production decline “borders on the unhinged.”

Parnell spokeswoman Sharon Leighow provided the Empire on Thursday with a copy of an April 19 statement that Paskvan made at a Senate Resources Committee meeting.

Paskvan told Revenue Commissioner Bryan Butcher “we’re not interested in having the myths of declining production and that issue, capital expenditures, and the employment numbers that we heard for the last year brought up” in the next day’s meeting, according to Leighow.

Paskvan said Thursday the “myths” he was referring to was the claim that the oil production decline was because of the ACES oil tax measure. He said Senate hearings also disproved claims jobs were down and investment was down since Alaska’s Clear and Equitable Share, or ACES was adopted.

The Parnell administration had been blaming declining oil production on the ACES oil tax, Paskvan said Thursday, when the decline that began in 1989 has slowed since the passage of ACES, he said.

Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, said he’d be available Monday for a limited “technical” session if that was needed, and he said Juneau Sen. Dennis Egan could join him to make it official. Under the Alaska Constitution, the Senate’s sine die adjournment only takes effect if the House agrees, otherwise the Legislature remains in session.

House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, told reporters Thursday members of the House Majority caucus he heads would decide behind closed doors Friday whether to adjourn or not.

One hint about the outcome of Friday’s caucus: The one bill remaining under consideration, House Bill 9. Chenault is its prime sponsor.

Thursday, he made a plea for resurrecting it, and belittled the chances of any other proposal other than his bullet-line proposal to provide natural gas to the Railbelt to succeed.

“It is the only project in the state that is moving forward,” he said, and he expressed doubts the big natural gas pipeline supported by Parnell and the state, created by the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act, would succeed.

“We continue to talk about a big line that has never been a viable option, or it would have been built,” he said.

Chenault’s House Bill 9, now the only bill active in the Legislature, is currently sitting in the Senate Community and Regional Affairs Committee, where it appears to have no prospects of moving.

Stevens said committee Chairman Donny Olson, D-Nome, doubted there were sufficient votes to move it from that committee, a subsequent committee, or that it could garner the minimum 11 votes needed to pass on the Senate Floor.

“Nor do I think there are 11 votes to move it across the Floor” should it reach the full Senate, Stevens said.

Rep. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, said House Bill 9 created a “superagency” that could not be controlled by the state and would not be guaranteed to protect consumers.

Chenault ally Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, said the agency needed those powers to protect the state’s interests.

“When you are negotiating with Exxon Mobil, you must have equal resources to bring to that table,” he said.

Given the likely failure of the bill in the Senate and with nothing at all before the House, there’s no reason for the Legislature to remain in session, Stevens said.

Despite that, the Senate Finance Committee has meetings scheduled for today, discussing a study of price fixing and several issues related to the Point Thomson oil and gas field.

No public House meetings have been scheduled today, and the full House is not scheduled to meet again until Monday.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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