PUBLISHED: 12:13 PM on Wednesday, February 8, 2006
Legislative Roundup
Lawmakers examine ferry budget

Directors of the state ferry system on Tuesday, Jan. 31, made a budget pitch to lawmakers that included plans to improve rider satisfaction and performance - at a higher cost.

The Murkowski administration's request for $135 million in fiscal year 2007 is up about $32 million from last year. In fiscal year 2005, the operating budget was about $99 million.

Several members of the House Finance Subcommittee said the demand for service is not being met in their districts.

"I feel like we are putting too much money into a system that doesn't work," said Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines. He doesn't want to cut funding, but to re-examine the way the schedules are managed, he said.

Lawmakers say complaints are mounting from constituents who cannot make plans in advance because ferry schedules are unreliable.

Robin Taylor, the system's chief, presented a plan to improve performance by increasing the frequency of ports of call, meeting higher percentages of on-time departures and increasing on-board sales, which include cabin occupancy, food and beverages.

The majority of the requested budget increase accounts for a rise in fuel prices and a labor agreement made earlier that called for a gradual pay raise of 22 percent over a couple of years, Taylor said.

The department's director of administrative services, Nancy Slagle, said $15 million will be needed soon to recover costs the state paid in the summer and fall when fuel prices spiked.

"We're looking at basically running out of cash in March if we don't get that supplemental," she said.

The subcommittee will likely recommend funding the ferry system at the amounts requested in the governor's proposed budget, Thomas said.

House bill would allow more fishing privileges

The House Resources Committee approved a bill that would allow commercial fishermen who own two permits in a salmon fishery to get even more fishing privileges.

The bill had a contentious public hearing last week, but on Monday, legislators debated only a few small technicalities before sending it to the House Rules Committee.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Ralph Samuels, R-Anchorage, would allow the fishermen to apply for more time, gear and areas to fish for salmon.

Only 44 Alaska fishermen take advantage of the law that allows them to have two permits in a commercial salmon fishery, according to state records.

Potentially hundreds of others fish a second permit registered under another family member's name, according to recent testimony in the House Resources committee.

The version of the bill passed includes an amendment that specifies the circumstances by which the Board of Fisheries can review proposals for new fishing privileges.

The board would approve or deny those privileges on a case-by-case basis at its regularly scheduled meetings, according to House Bill 251.

Some fishermen, particularly in Bristol Bay, still believe it an unfair opportunity for fishermen who can afford to purchase two permits.

"This just speeds up the demise of local fisheries ... and favors those with the most capital," said Robin Samuelson, a Bristol Bay fisherman.

Many Bristol Bay fishermen have 18-foot "mom-and-pop" fishing boats and they will be "annihilated" by further consolidation of the region's salmon fisheries, Samuelson said.

It's unlikely that the Board of Fisheries would approve any requests for the additional opportunities if there's significant resistance from local fishermen, Thorstenson said.

New qualifications for oil & gas commission

House Bill 300 unanimously passed the Oil & Gas Committee this week, and now moves to the House Resources Committee for consideration. The measure, sponsored by Rep. Vic Kohring (R-Wasilla/Mat-Su) requires that one with demonstrated experience in the oil and gas industry fill the public seat on the three member Oil & Gas Conservation Commission.

Currently, demonstrated experience applies only to the two technical seats, the geologist and engineer.

"It's critical all members of the commission have a fundamental understanding of the industry they regulate, and this legislation helps accomplish that," Kohring said. He added that with the increased highly technical nature of the industry, it further underscores the need to have experienced and knowledgeable appointees on the Commission.

HB 300 requires the public member to possess training or experience in the field, demonstrating a clear, essential knowledge of the state's oil and gas operations.

House committee to consider 'Methi-juana' bill

The Alaska House rejected on Wednesday, Feb. 1, a bill that aims to penalize marijuana use and curb home manufacturing of methamphetamines.

But the bill is far from dead.

The Senate had passed what began as a bill that would make it harder for meth cookers to buy over-the-counter drugs that are necessary ingredients in producing the drug.

To move two other bills dealing with marijuana and steroid use faster through the legislative process, the Senate combined several bills into one. It has since been nicknamed the "meth-ijuana" bill.

Because the House approved House Bill 149 last session, the bill must go through a conference committee to settle the differences.

If the bill is passed and signed into law, Assistant Attorney General Dean Guaneli said the Department of Law will use the bill to try to overturn the Supreme Court ruling. Guaneli said the department would make an arrest and use the case to challenge the court, hoping new findings in the bill will be used as evidence to overturn the historic ruling.

The first conference committee meeting could be 10 to 15 days away.

Reported by the Juneau Empire