PUBLISHED: 11:12 AM on Wednesday, January 25, 2006
Legislative Roundup
Shorter Session?

Alaska legislators have discussed cutting their annual session to 90 days for about 15 years, but a bill has pumped new life into the issue because it may require fewer votes to pass than previous proposals.

Two Anchorage Republicans, Reps. Ralph Samuels and Norm Rokeberg, say they've come up with a new plan that might win over the critics who maintain they still need 121 days, if not more, to flesh out bills.

"It's not the money issue. It's a public participation issue," said Samuels, during a Tuesday, Jan. 17, hearing of House Bill 22 at the House Finance Committee.

Cutting the session by 30 days would save the state about $1 million, and Samuels argued more candidates could run for office if they have more time off from the session to run their businesses.

But Samuels' and Rokeberg's plan would involve a statutory change in need of a majority, rather than a two-thirds vote, which was why the proposals have not passed since attempts to trim the session began in 1990, Rokeberg said.

The words "balance of power" continued to surface among the bill's critics on Tuesday. Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, said a shorter session gives the governor opportunity to focus on his agenda and less time for legislators to repair his bills, if they object.

"It's easier not to get things done," Elton added.

Timber Sale

The South Thorne Bay #1 timber sale proposed by the State Division of Forestry is being supported by Rep. Jim Elkins, R-Ketchikan.

"This 128 acre sale will provide an estimated 3.8 MBF (million board feet) of marketable timber and after review, I believe is consistent with the Alaska Coastal Management Program," said Elkins on Tuesday, Jan. 17.

The sale area is located approximately 4 miles southeast of Thorne Bay. The State maintains a public list of mills in Southeast Alaska that have expressed interest in timber sales and will market the sale based on this list.

"The beauty of this proposal is that it requires the harvested timber to be manufactured in-state. This will sustain and promote a healthy, long-term timber industry as well as the local economy of the communities on Prince of Wales Island and elsewhere in southern Southeast Alaska," Elkins said.

Gas Pipeline

A group of Alaska lawmakers and former Gov. Walter Hickel say oil producers are intentionally delaying construction of a $20 billion natural gas pipeline and the time has come to pressure them into a deal.

"We are not going to be the (natural gas) warehouse to keep a stock price up," said Rep. Eric Croft, D-Anchorage, during a House Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday, Jan. 18.

While producers have grown fatter on the high demand for fuel, Wall Street wants to see that they have adequate reserves to keep up with the pace of growth, Croft said.

"Outside interests, determined to stifle any development in Alaska which might compete with their activities elsewhere, will attempt to acquire great areas of Alaska land in order not to develop them until they see fit," said Hickel, in a legislative committee hearing last week.

Representatives from the three oil companies involved in negotiations - Conoco Phillips, Exxon Mobil and BP Alaska - deny they are intentionally delaying the deal and say they are serious about building a pipeline.

The new tax could collect about $1 billion annually from producers until gas starts flowing and the fee expires. If a contract is signed, from that point producers could get their money back through credits applied against the production tax on the gas that is shipped.

Myers said any price more than $3 is robust for the industry and producers should not use the excuse that profits will not be made on gas at this time.

Another hearing on the bill is expected in February. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bruce Weyhrauch said the bill treads over sensitive areas - particularly now - because it may interfere with the contract negotiations.

Pollution Zones

After a public outcry from fishermen, Murkowski announced he will retain the state's ban on pollution mixing zones in spawning areas for salmon and other fish species.

"Alaska's salmon-based economy is too important to risk any loss in consumer confidence," said Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Kurt Fredriksson, on Friday, Jan. 13, during a news conference.

The new rule is a disappointment to the mining industry, which had supported lifting the ban, said Steve Borrell, executive director of the Alaska Miners Association.

The fishing industry wasn't ready to claim victory.

The United Fishermen of Alaska declined to comment Jan. 13, citing a need for more analysis.

Another issue raised Jan. 13 by environmental groups: The new rule will not ban mixing zones in areas used by juvenile salmon.

Alaska Trollers Association Executive Director Dale Kelley said the new rule is inadequate if it doesn't protect juvenile fish.

According to the rule, a mixing zone will not be authorized if it harms "the present and future capability" of an area to support spawning, incubation or rearing" of fish.

The new rule will allow polluters to apply for exceptions to the mixing zone ban for 14 fish species - including Dolly Varden, trout and Arctic grayling.

Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, worries that those exceptions "might be troublesome for subsistence users in the Interior."

Seaton and several other legislators are sponsoring a bill that would prohibit mixing zones in freshwater spawning habitat, but allow them in artificially created fish habitat, such as wastewater ditches.