Becky Bohrer, Associated Press
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.
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