Session goes on, but end in sight

Legislators have their boxes packed, computers have been shipped to local offices and some aides have boarded the ferry and left Juneau, but as of late Wednesday morning, the 28th session of the Alaska Legislature remained at work as a joint House-Senate conference committee struggled to resolve discrepancies in an omnibus education bill.

 “We’re very, very close to coming home,” said Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna. “Unless we’re not.”

That education bill was the big hurdle in ending the session, Micciche and Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, said. On Tuesday afternoon, a conference committee of three Senate members and three House members were meeting in the capital to reach agreement on House Bill 278, the education bill.

Sens. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, and Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel were appointed to the committee by Senate President Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla. House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, appointed Reps. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla, and Sam Kito, D-Juneau.

“They are slowly going through the differences between the two bills,” Seaton said in a phone interview on Tuesday afternoon. “And now the difficult part is so you can get 21 votes on the House side and 11 votes on the Senate side for an education package that accomplishes the goals of the House and Senate.”

“I think the two sides are really close,” Micciche said of the education bill. “It just depends on whether students come first or politics. I personally think students should come first. With that in mind, we should have no problem in the conference being successful.”

A big sticking point is the amount of the base student allocation, or BSA, and if increases go in the allocation or outside it, Seaton said. Putting increases in the BSA gives stability to future projections of the money school districts can expect from the state. The education bill also includes elements like eliminating the high school exit exam.

“This is of one of the problems with doing an omnibus anything where you put so many moving pieces in a bill,” Seaton said.

Also remaining to be passed is the capital budget, but only because the Legislature needs an appropriation vehicle to fund whatever the conference decides on the education bill. Seaton said he didn’t expect any other amendments to the capital budget.

That bill includes $7 million in House District 30 projects for Seaton’s district on the lower and middle Kenai Peninsula. Of that, $2.2 million is for department requests or reappropriations. Funding for new projects totals $4.7 million. Topping the list is $1.4 million for Waddell Way road improvements, one of the city’s top-5 capital improvement project requests from the Legislature. The city got three of those top-5 projects, also receiving appropriations for a harbor sheet-pile loading dock and fire department equipment upgrades, $350,000 each. Missing was $1.2 million for a new public safety building and $3.5 million for water storage and distribution improvements. The Pratt Museum got $900,000 for its new building.

The Kachemak Bay Research Reserve also got $175,000 in funding restored as a capital budget item. That includes a $100,000 appropriation to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game that did not affect District 30 items. The other $75,000 came by cutting $50,000 for the Pratt and $25,000 from the Waddell Way projects; those amounts had been in an earlier version. The $175,000 to the research reserve allows it to continue another year while the Sport Fish Division seeks to find it another agency partner. That money is the amount needed to leverage 70 percent matching funds from the federal government.

“It’s the art of the possible,” Seaton said of getting funding for the research reserve. “It’s a balancing act. All capital projects are beneficial to a community. You have to figure out what has the most benefit to the community. I’m glad Peter (Sen. Micciche) was able to negotiate that fine line.”

The capital budget is “looking well,” said Micciche. 

“Our district did very well assuming it all survives concurrence. … We have worked hard and have some great projects in there. We met the needs that were the priorities of the community,” he said. 

Although Micciche recognized the Legislature’s final version of the capital budget would still go before the governor, Micciche said he thinks there’s “a high probability of the final capital budget looking a lot like it does right now. … If you look at the nature of the projects, there are very few things anyone would regard as being fat. There’s all kinds of essential service stuff.”

One of Seaton’s bills that passed will result in an estimated increase of $95,000 in revenues to Fish and Game, he said. House Bill 143 eliminates stacking of short-term commercial fishing crew member licenses, the so-called “dude” fishing intended to allow tourists to experience commercial fishing. That program had been abused by nonresident fishermen when they kept buying the 7-day licenses to avoid higher fishing license fees. The change limits dude fishermen to one 7-day license.

Another Seaton bill, HB 75, also passed. That allows for more participation by nonprofits in the Pick.Click.Give donation program through the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend. Smaller nonprofits will no longer have to submit audits to participate. A new participation fee of 7 percent paid out of nonprofit receipts will support marketing and outreach of Pick.Click.Give. 

Seaton said he was disappointed that his invasive species response bill didn’t pass. That would have set up advance plans for state agencies to respond to outbreaks of invasive species like the elodea weed. The Legislature did appropriate $400,000 to eradicate elodea from three Kenai Peninsula lakes, though, Seaton said.

“Like I keep saying, if a bill doesn’t pass, most bills take three or four legislatures to go through anyway,” Seaton said.

Looking back over the 28th Legislature, Micciche said he was “excited” about the passage and subsequent signing by Gov. Sean Parnell of Senate Bill 148, which removed Homer’s port and harbor and municipal lands from the Kachemak Bay Critical Habitat Area. 

“I think that’s very important to Homer,” said Micciche.

Re-drawing of the critical habitat’s boundaries was supported by the Homer City Council as a way to make clear confusion between the statute and the critical habitat area’s management plan.

Micciche also was pleased with funding that will add a new park ranger to Kachemak Bay State Park.

“What’s fascinating is that everyone else is cutting. (The Department of Natural Resources) had a spare position that was supposed to be cut but we have worked on it for two years,” said Micciche, also crediting the efforts of Ben Ellis, director of the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation, and “the folks that care about Kachemak Bay State Park. They certainly helped as well.”

The passage of Senate Bill 213 by both the Senate and the House was received well by municipal clerks, said Micciche, especially in areas interested in conducting elections by mail or electronic transmission. The bill was sponsored by the Senate Community and Regional Affairs Committee, which is chaired by Micciche, and makes clear that election boards are needed only when voters cast their votes in person. 

Seeing it as a cost-savings step in areas that “simply can’t afford some elections,” Micciche said the bill did two things. 

“First, it’s about saving money for municipalities while conducting local elections,” he said. “Second, it’s about striving to improve dismal voter participation rates by conducting certain elections by mail and other methods.”

Micciche also was pleased with the passage by both houses of Senate Bill 71, “a bill important to commercial fishing families throughout Alaska.”

The legislation relates to the filing date for the quarterly payment of fishery resource landing tax and found support from such groups as the Alaska Scallop Association in Kodiak.

“Under current statutes, our landing taxes must be paid in four equal payments at the end of each quarter with final payment due by March 31 of the following year,” said Jim Stone, ASA vice president.

“While this might be fine for entities operating year round, there are certainly problems with ‘seasonal’ operations, particular(ly) ones that only operate on the second half of the calendar year.”

After House Bill 77, a bill introduced at the request of Parnell that would have changed the permitting for state projects, drew strong public criticism, Micciche said it was removed from the Legislature’s agenda.

“We just decided to pull back, break it into small pieces and put those issues out into the light of day and get the public’s opinion,” he said.

Micciche plans to have his Homer office open soon after the Legislature adjourns.

“I’m very, very proud of our constituents for being willing to be engaged and vocal and I just certainly hope they’ll continue in the future,” said Micciche.

On Tuesday, Seaton said he thought the Legislature could adjourn by Thursday or Friday.

“I think the conference committee is doing a really good job of being slow enough everybody can follow the discussion,” he said of work on the education bill.

“If it’s not done (Wednesday), we could be looking at — if there’s huge sticking problems — it could be considerably longer. I don’t anticipate that. The way I see them going forward, I think there’s reasonable agreement on many issues.”