The final stretch

Adjournment is close at hand. And to the extent that the people knew what they were doing when the elected a predominately Republican legislature to get things done, they got what they wanted. Big bills, bills that have been debated in the Legislature for years, bills that have been the subject of hundreds of hours of committee hearings, of debate, those bills are now a hair’s-breadth from making their way to Gov. Sean Parnell’s desk to be signed. For better or for worse, depending on how you’re wired.

From oil taxes to money for construction of a small diameter natural gas pipeline that would run from the North Slope to Southcentral Alaska. From LNG from the North Slope to Fairbanks. From gun laws to the Knik Arm Bridge, insurance and drug laws, abortion and the Judicial Council. All the pieces seem to be fitting together nicely for an orderly adjournment by Sunday night right before midnight.

That is, of course, barring some unforeseen melt down or huge personality clash, which would likely come from one of the many divisions in the House, particularly from the faction that wants to lower the base rate on the oil tax bill. That amendment would likely come from Rep. Mike Hawker, who lowered the base rate to 33 percent in House Resources. At least two members of the Senate have drawn the line on 35 percent. So, if it succeeds, it will likely kill the bill. Some in the know say that because the tax break isn’t big enough, killing the bill is the goal of at least one of the three major oil companies. (Guess which one?)

However, given how well House Speaker Mike Chenault has been able to herd the cats so far—the demise of KABATA being case and point—the success of such machinations is unlikely.

Here are the four key bills that are “must haves” for adjournment:  SB 21 the oil tax reform bill, HB 4 the small diameter pipeline bill, the operating budget and lastly the capital budget.

What isn’t being reported on much is nonetheless important to note as some of these bills have huge impacts on the lives for average people. One bill that has gotten extremely little media attention–introduced by freshman Sen. Mike Dunleavy, and referred to only one committee which he chairs–was a bill to allow insurance companies to use credit scores as a factor in setting insurance rates.

During the public hearing process, the only witnesses testifying in favor of the bill were employees of the insurance industry and the state’s new Director of Insurance (it should be noted that the previous state insurance director opposed the bill for years). On the other hand, a lot of Alaskan consumers testified against the bill, citing its unfairness and questioning why in the world the Alaska legislature would consider advancing such a measure. Unfortunately, their concerns fell on deaf ears as committee members paid deference to Dunleavy who wanted to move the bill to the floor. (It should be noted that Dunleavy campaigned as the voice of the people.)

The half dozen or more lobbyists working together to advance this bill were gleeful. However, that euphoria crashed when the bill ran into the Senate Rules Committee, which schedules bills for floor action and is chaired by Sen. Lesil McGuire. She thought the bill was against consumer interest and she had enough courage to stand up to the insurance industry and the leaders of her caucus to squash it. Like a bug. With her stilettos.

Then there’s a bill sponsored in the Senate by Dunleavy and in the House by Rep. Lynn Gattis, who’s turning out to be one of the freshman stars, which would bring public education employees into the state’s large insurance pool. As of now, most of them are covered through an National Education Association trust. The state, which already pays for the insurance, says that combining the two pools will result in savings for all. The bill is being fought by the NEA and Sen. Bill Wielechowski, both of whom called it a “big government takeover of healthcare.” If that’s not irony for you, then there’s none of it left in the world.

There’s lots of other bills, but one of my favorites is a bill by Sen. Fred Dyson, a staunch conservative, which would make simple possession of schedule I and II substances a Class A misdemeanor, which still can carry with it up to a year in prison and a $10,000 fine. It’s supported by the ACLU, the Department of Corrections and a bevy of defense lawyers who have long been bemoaning the havoc our drug laws has wrought. It passed the Senate 17 to 2.

Here’s more irony for you: Two of those most vocal Dems in Alaska, Sens. Bill Wielechowski and Hollis French, voted against it after French offered two failing amendments that would weaken the bill.

That bill is now in House Finance, and will likely take a backseat to the other huge order of business on today’s schedule: the capital budget. The committee is expected to release the first draft later today.

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