JUNEAU, Alaska — Gov. Sean Parnell told key senators Wednesday that he would fairly evaluate capital spending projects and not abuse his veto authority, assurances seen as positive as he and lawmakers try to untangle a budget mess.
Sen. Bert Stedman described the phone call — the first time he'd spoken with Parnell in over a week — as recognition of some of the fears that senators have that their projects could be cut for failing to pass Parnell's oil tax-reduction bill.
Stedman said he still wasn't clear on Parnell's top-level spending limit and a few other issues, but said he looked forward to continuing to talk.
Parnell's spokeswoman, Sharon Leighow, said the line of communication remains open but that Parnell refused a request by Senate President Gary Stevens, made later in the day, to address the full majority caucus on those issues — hopefully, more in-depth — as early as Thursday. (Stevens, Stedman and Sen. Lyman Hoffman had been part of the morning phone call.)
Leighow said Parnell has already made his assurances public in various forums — including at a dinner at the governor's mansion Saturday that she said included over 30 lawmakers — and he didn't want to address a closed caucus.
She said he offered to hold a news conference with Stevens and House Speaker Mike Chenault in which Parnell would "reaffirm" his commitment to not abuse his veto authority and where Stevens could "pledge to act constitutionally" and remove contingency language from the capital budget. That language has stood as the main obstacle to getting a budget bill out. She said Stevens did not immediately respond.
The Senate Finance Committee has refused to advance a bill without agreement with the House on its size and structure, including contingency and non-severability language that currently makes about $400 million in energy projects an as-is, all-or-nothing deal. Members of the House's GOP-led majority, who consider the language inappropriate and an overreach by the Legislature, have refused to sign off.
While talks continue, there's little indication that an end is in sight. Wednesday marked the 10th day of a 30-day special session. House GOP leaders marked it with a news conference in which they decried the lack of progress, saying they felt as though they were being held hostage by the Senate, which has the three outstanding bills on the special session call sheet in its possession.
They also repeated their call to the Senate to send over a capital spending plan.
Senate leaders responded to the House majority by saying they had made considerable concessions on the budget, including offering to put parts of the energy package dealing with popular programs like weatherization, energy efficiency and renewable energy grants into a clean bill of their own. The House GOP said that proposal stemmed largely from their idea, which had been to free those items as well as money for an instate gas pipeline plan — an issue dear to Chenault — from the contingencies.
Chenault had raised concerns that those projects could be in jeopardy or on hold, perhaps for years, if there was a lawsuit over the contingency language in the capital budget.
A lawsuit is a very real possibility. While Stevens said the Senate majority wasn't pushing to have the issue wind up in courts, Stedman said that at some point — if not this year — the judicial branch will need to decide the true authorities of the legislative and executive branches.
Hoffman said he was puzzled by the House's take on the language. He said the Senate was merely trying to protect the Legislature's projects — not just the Senate's — from veto. And the Senate believes it's on solid legal standing, in spite of the attorney general's finding Tuesday that the language unconstitutional and a violation of Parnell's veto authority.
A top legislative lawyer, Doug Gardner, in a memo to Chenault, said contingency language doesn't prohibit Parnell from vetoing projects; rather, he said, a veto of one project would be a veto of all of them. Gardner, in the memo dated April 22, said any court decision could turn on whether the projects are sufficiently linked to make the contingency reasonable.
Gardner didn't say the Senate had an ironclad case for keeping the language. But he said there's a good chance a court could uphold it.
Chenault and other GOP leaders said they just want to see legislative process play out — have the Senate send over a version of the capital budget — and have any differences hashed out in conference committee, an eventuality that Stedman said could get sticky and would rather avoid.
Stedman said the language is "appropriate," but has also suggested that it could go away if Parnell agreed to a spending limit and allowed for specific projects.
Senate leaders have said they're trying to protect projects they deem important to the state amid threats from the governor to further rein in capital spending if a bill addressing oil taxes stalled, as it did, in the Senate.
Parnell has said he never threatened to target individual senators and has promised not to abuse his veto authority if the Legislature doesn't abuse its authority.
House Finance Committee co-chair Bill Stoltze dismissed any suggestion that the current mess is tied to the oil-tax debate, calling it nothing more than a talking point that the press has bought into.
While the capital budget isn't in the House and finance members have said it doesn't make sense to work on it until they get the Senate's final version, Stoltze said he's taking the issue — and his committee — to Anchorage for hearings Friday. The agenda includes talks from Alaska Housing Finance Corp. CEO Dan Fauske and Alaska Energy Authority Executive Director Sarah Fisher-Goad, who are scheduled to speak on projects included in the energy package.
The committee is also scheduled to hear Burns' take on the contingency language.
House Minority Leader Beth Kerttula called holding a hearing outside of Juneau unnecessary, particularly if testimony is limited, and said she'd rather that lawmakers stay and try to finish the work at hand. That includes the operating and mental health budgets, now in conference committee; the capital budget; and bills dealing with coastal management and scholarships.
Hoffman said he'd also like the House to take up a revenue-sharing bill passed by the Senate during the regular session that's meant to help school districts and municipalities deal with energy costs. Stoltze said that was not on the special session call sheet.