PUBLISHED: 10:44 AM on Wednesday, January 18, 2006
Legislative session kicks off with budget talk
The second session of the 24th Legislature is underway with talk of education, the gas pipeline and budget surplus.

On Tuesday, Jan. 10, many Alaska Republican and Democratic legislators suggested saving as much as half of the state's expected $1.2 billion revenue surplus.

That proposal could compete with an idea offered by the governor to earmark $400 million for state equity in a planned natural gas pipeline.

The money that he and other lawmakers propose to put in savings could be used for a down payment on the pipeline, but lawmakers would leave its purpose unspecified so it could also be used for education or other needs, House Finance co-chairman Kevin Meyer said.

Legislators proposed several ideas on where to put the savings. Among them are the Constitutional Budget Reserve, which helps pay state expenses during lean years, or into the earnings of the Alaska Permanent Fund so it collects higher interest over time.

With Congress defeating a plan to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and removing earmarks for two projects criticized as "bridges to nowhere," Gov. Frank Murkowski used his State of the State address Tuesday, Jan. 11, to express his frustration.

His speech also fueled speculation that he will seek re-election.

A proposed $5,500 bonus paycheck for improving student academic performance could come in handy for teachers, Juneau Education Association President Carol Shurson said.

Education Commissioner Roger Sampson presented the proposed Alaska School Performance Incentive Program to the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday, Jan. 11, proposing bonuses ranging from $1,000 to $5,500 for each public school staff member who significantly improves student performance.

Sampson said the program would help create environments in schools across the state that spread the responsibility of student achievement across the entire staff and would result in lower dropout rates and higher graduation rates.

Murkowski's State of the Budget address Thursday, Jan. 12, pitched several proposals he will push for this session, including ownership in the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

Murkowski said the biggest items in his budget, though, would go toward future education funding. It would also go toward a down payment on a $20 billion natural gas pipeline his administration proposes to build with North Slope oil producers.

The budget would spend $3.62 billion from the general fund, some $500 million more than last year because of a major increase in oil revenues.

Murkowski said talks already have begun with Trans Alaska Pipeline System owners on the state carving out its share of the oil pipeline, and there is some interest from the other side.

Republicans and Democrats this session share the same goal to save about half of the expected $1.2 billion surplus coming from increased oil revenues. Considering that the governor's budget spends almost all of that, the lawmakers will try to make some cuts to his plan this spring.

One possible item that could be cut out of the governor's plan may be his $400 million set-aside for an equity share in the natural gas pipeline.

House and Senate members said they may allocate dollars for future education funding again as they did it last year, but it may be unlikely they will set aside that the $565 million the governor is requesting.

In his speech, Murkowski also said his administration and the Department of Environmental Conservation will retain the current regulatory prohibition on mixing zones in salmon spawning areas, instead of seeking exceptions for groups on a case-by-case basis.

Some $1.3 billion would be spent on statewide transportation needs, with $873 million of federal funds paying for the costs.

Those projects include funding for two controversial bridges and a number of projects to relieve traffic congestion in the Anchorage area.

If the Alaska Legislature passes House Bill 23, bidding on a new capitol will be fair game for any borough with a population of more than 30,000, including Juneau.

The bill was heard in the House State Affairs Committee on Thursday, Jan. 12, but action is not expected on the measure until next week.

The bill does not call for a full-blown capital move involving the relocation of each department and related offices. But Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho called this bill a "capital move in disguise."