TOO LATE: Legislators say utility merger, gas plan not likely to pass.
JUNEAU — Gov. Sarah Palin’s biggest initiatives for this legislative session appear dead on arrival, at least for this year.
Top lawmakers said Tuesday they aren’t likely to pass the governor’s bills dealing with an in-state natural gas pipeline and consolidating the six Railbelt utilities to pursue mega-projects like the Susitna River dam.
“They are very big issues. I personally do not believe we will complete those before the end of the session,” said Senate President Gary Stevens, a Republican from Kodiak.
Lawmakers from both parties say Palin introduced the bills too late — about halfway through the 90-day session of the Legislature.
Palin spokesman Bill McAllister said that’s no excuse.
“Well, what did they do last week?” McAllister said.
The Legislature shut down most of last week. About half the legislators went to an energy conference in Washington D.C. Many of the rest went home to take a break.
“Those bills were dropped in the last week and a half here — and we believe the Legislature can move forward,” McAllister said.
On Monday, Palin issued a written statement saying “lawmakers should not delay consideration of the agenda before them on the mistaken belief that I will call a special session to handle whatever is left on the table.”
McAllister reiterated that. While the governor wants the bills passed this year, he said, she wouldn’t call a special session over it.
“If they simply believe there’s not enough time, if they make an effort and they don’t get there, we’ll be disappointed but we’ll move ahead on those plans to the extent possible and take up the issues in 2010,” McAllister said.
It’s been a common complaint among legislators this year that they lack time. Alaska voters in 2006 limited them to 90-day regular sessions — down from the previous 120 days.
Senate president Stevens said lawmakers have a lot to do in the final six weeks of the session with passing the budget and getting a handle on the hundreds of millions of dollars in federal economic stimulus money about to flow into the state. He said they could start work on Palin’s bills and come back to them next year.
Palin is proposing to broaden the responsibilities of the Alaska Natural Gas Development Authority and to deal with right-of-way and regulatory issues, as well as to set conditions for the operation of a pipeline from the North Slope to Cook Inlet.
Palin said the idea is to jump-start the project. But legislators aren’t clear on exactly what she’s trying to do, and some question whether she is going about it the right way.
“It needs close study to make sure you aren’t interfering with the workings of the market … The other point is I think you need to look harder at Cook Inlet and see if there aren’t less-expensive ways to stimulate gas exploration and production right at home,” said Anchorage Democratic Sen. Hollis French.
There seems to be more support in the Legislature for the idea of consolidating the six utilities in the Railbelt, a region ranging from the Kenai Peninsula up through Anchorage to Fairbanks. But at least one of the utilities — Golden Valley Electric Association of Fairbanks — is objecting to the bill, and lawmakers said the issue will take time.
Palin wants to consolidate the utilities for the potential to pursue big, costly construction like the long-proposed Susitna River dam. The dam could be the centerpiece of her goal for Alaska to have 50 percent electrical power generated by renewable sources by 2025.
Palin says merging the utilities would save ratepayers money.
But legislators say there are a lot of details involved in combining assets of utilities that have a history of fighting each other.
“Those are pretty heavy lifts for one session and having them introduced right in the middle of session makes it difficult to do,” said North Pole Republican Rep. John Coghill.
Anchorage Democratic Rep. Mike Doogan was doubtful the market would support both an in-state pipeline and a Susitna hydro project. Doogan said it’s highly unlikely that Palin’s gas pipeline and utility plans will pass under the circumstances.
“If they were really serious about those things, they would have had their ducks lined up on the first day of the session,” he said.
Anchorage Daily News