Ethics, Budget, 90-day Session Highlight List
January 17, 2007
The five-member leadership said the Majority is looking forward to forming a good working relationship with members of the House Minority, the Senate and governor's office, while tackling an aggressive agenda of legislation and work on the operating and capital budgets. Leadership members also say that they hope to be able to work within a 90-day time frame, to better prepare for a 90-day session as mandated by a recently passed voter initiative to shorten the session by 31 days.
House Speaker John Harris (R Valdez) said that ethics reform and disclosure need to be addressed, including expanding reporting requirements for lawmakers and clarifying the definition and descriptions of what constitutes ethical behavior.
"The real test for us will be whether or not we can communicate with the public about what ethics for lawmakers are," Harris said. "We can tighten the regulations, make the process more transparent, and give the people all the information they need to come to their own conclusions regarding the actions of an individual lawmaker. But we also have to keep in mind that we need to keep the process manageable to insure that the average Alaskan will still be willing to run for public office.
"For all the bills that will come before us, you begin to see that the pay will start to become a factor," Harris said. "That begs the question for Alaskans: Do you want a citizen legislature, or a professional legislature? In the end I hope we can deliver on ethics reform that both satisfies the public's right to know what individual lawmakers do to earn a living outside of office while also trying to strike a balance on 'common sense' reporting requirements and not make serving in public office an unreasonable burden."
"A citizen legislature is good for Alaska, in my opinion," House Majority Leader Ralph Samuels (R Anchorage) said. "I hope the debate over ethics is broader than simply reform and reporting. I whole-heartedly agree that we need to clear up the parameters for the public."
With the new administration's proposed budgets still being finalized, Majority leadership stressed patience when speaking about potential cuts to reach Governor Sarah Palin's stated goal of $150-million in cuts from the operating budget.
"Whenever someone mentions cuts in the budget you immediately think of state services," House Finance Committee Co-Chairman Mike Chenault (R-Nikiski) said. "We are willing to listen and work with the administration and Senate to craft a responsible operating budget while still doing our due diligence to make sure we meet our constitutional obligations.
"There are a number of programs coming up so far: the longevity bonus, municipal revenue sharing, area cost differential for education to name a few," Chenault said. "But any time you add something back in you have to justify that cost. We are going to spend a good amount of time on the operating budget from the outset, subcommittee assignments are nearly complete, and we look forward to seeing what the administration proposes to fill the gaps in their first version."
"The surplus we are looking at today could be different once the Department of Revenue's Spring Oil Price Forecast comes around," House Finance Committee Co-Chairman Kevin Meyer (R Anchorage) said. "With the conservative push from the administration and return to fiscal responsibility we are going to have to take a harder look at projects for the capital budget. There are important things on the horizon for Alaska that we need to address: the PERS/TRS unfunded liability and management of the surplus."
While not a specific piece of legislation, the 2008 enactment of the 90-day legislative session is a major factor in preparing to work through the first half of the session.
"That added pressure will certainly affect the way we use the uniform rules and the entire scope of timing for legislation," House Rules Committee Chairman John Coghill (R North Pole) said. "It will add to the workload of the entire body, and we may see a reduction in passing legislation and more of a focus on the budget. There is just a lot of uncertainty over the initiative's impact this early, but you can bet it will change the way we operate."
"This type of initiative will require both bodies of the Legislature to work more closely together to make sure the people's priorities are taken care of," Harris said. "It is our intent to try and finish the first half of the session in 90 days. There may be some bumps along the road, but it is in our best interest to try it now, since it will be a reality in 2008 either way."
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