Legislature hits homestretch with major bills pending
JUNEAU — The Legislature has entered the home stretch on its 2013 session, with a little over two weeks to go. Major legislation is moving but a lot of important bills are already being left on the sideline.
House and Senate leaders hope to finish on April 18, Good Friday, two days before the Legislature’s required adjournment April 20, Easter Sunday.
House Bill 266, the state operating budget that has passed the House, was on the Senate floor April 2 as the Senate worked to send its version of the budget to the House. A conference committee will be appointed to work out differences between the two bills.
One important change being made in the operating budget is the start of a five-year winddown of state revenue-sharing with municipalities. The first impact of this won’t be felt until next year but by 2020 all state revenue-sharing to local governments, now about $60 million per year, would end.
Meanwhile, work continues in the back rooms on a state capital budget, the first version of which is expected to appear soon. The Senate Finance Committee scheduled statewide hearings on the capital budget beginning April 3, but it isn’t clear whether there will be a proposed bill available or people will be asked to make conceptual comments.
Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said his own priority will be to finish major projects already under construction, such as the partly-built engineering buildings on the University of Alaska campuses in Fairbanks and Anchorage.
Projects like the Susitna-Watana hydro project, which are still being planned, are lower on Meyers’ list, he said.
Another key bill, Gov. Sean Parnell’s omnibus education bill, was also on the House floor April 2 but the House Finance Committee was working that morning to get its final version out. If that hits a bump, floor action by the House would be delayed until April 3.
The bill contains most provisions originally proposed by the governor but also adds new state funding for schools through a larger increase in the base student allocation, or BSA, for fiscal year 2015, the state budget year beginning July 1, than Parnell had proposed.
However, the bill also changes the state school-funding formula in ways that the benefits of the increased funding will go to the larger school districts.
“We’re still working to understand what is in the new House education bill but it appears that most of the state’s school districts, the smaller ones, will see no increases,” Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, said April 2 in a briefing by Senate Democrats.
Two provisions originally in the bill, ending the state high school exit test and an increase in funding for rural boarding schools, are out of the bill because they are in separate legislation moving through the House and Senate.
The Senate version of the education bill, SB 139, is in the Senate Finance Committee and will likely stay there until the House bill comes over, senate leaders say. Much of what the governor originally asked for in the bill remains intact in SB 139.
Both versions are positioned so that passage by April 20 is highly likely, although further bumps in the road are always possible.
A highly-controversial House bill adopting a new funding framework for the proposed Knik Arm bridge was up for more work in the Senate Finance Committee April 2. The bill passed the House last year.
If the Senate committee moves the bill it is likely to move to the Senate floor soon, although it must still go back to the House for concurrence with the Senate changes.
Another controversial bill is dead for this year, however. House Bill 77, the governor’s bill that made changes in state procedures for permits on state lands, appeals of permit decisions and state policy on water-rights reservations, will likely remain in the Senate Resources Committee.
The Department of Natural Resources had proposed changes to the bill intended to meet objections raised by critics but the changes apparently did not go far enough.
The controversial sections dealt with who has standing to appeal a decision made by the department, and a proposal to limit the authority to file for water reservations in streams to state government agencies or municipalities. Individuals and nonprofit groups like environmental organizations would not be allowed to file for water reservations under the governor’s original proposal.
The bill was strongly supported by resource development groups because the water-rights reservations had become a tool for opponents of mines.
Another important bill that will wait for another year is HB 340, which would have directed the Regulatory Commission of Alaska to facilitate a single electric utility operator system for the “railbelt” electric grid that is now operated by independent electric utilities, mostly co-ops, from Homer to Fairbanks.
The major electric utilities, Chugach Electric Association, Municipal Light and Power, Matanuska Electric Association and Golden Valley Electric Association in Fairbanks, have long favored creation of a single operator group that would coordinate the efficient dispatch of power through the grid.
The utilities now work together to dispatch power among themselves but work through informal Memorandums of Understandings, an imperfect system that leads to inefficiencies and higher costs.
However, two railbelt utilities, Homer Electric Association and the City of Seward, have not signed onto the idea and without the support of all the utilities HB 340 will remain in the House Energy Committee, Rep. Charisse Millett, the committee co-chair, announced April 2.
Millet said she strongly supports the idea of a single system operator but won’t run roughshod over HEA and Seward. She plans to work through the summer on getting a unified position by the utilities and try again in 2015, she said.
On the governor’s proposal for state participation in a natural gas pipeline, the House Resources will finish its review of the legislation, Senate Bill 138, this week with the goal of taking amendments on April 4, and working on a proposed committee substitute next week, said its co-chair, Rep. Eric Feige, R-Chickaloon.
The bill is expected to emerge from the committee with its basic framework intact but a lot of questions have surfaced over the participation by TransCanada Corp., a pipeline company, as the state’s primary partner. There may be provisions added by the committee dealing with TransCanada.