JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — While legislators continue to dig into details of the budget and plans to advance a liquefied natural gas project, this week's calendar also features a spate of proposed constitutional amendments.
The amendments, public hearings on referenda and, yes, pipeline legislation are three things to watch for this week.
— CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENTS: At least five proposed changes to the state constitution — two of which deal with education funding — are scheduled to be heard this week.
SJR9, from Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, proposes striking a provision in Alaska's Constitution that prohibits the state from using public funds for the direct benefit of private and religious schools. The proposal, which roiled some lawmakers when it was introduced last year, seemed to gain new momentum after Gov. Sean Parnell, in his State of the State address last month, called on lawmakers to debate the measure and send to it voters, to let them decide.
Supporters contend the effort could allow for more choice in where parents send their kids to school. But critics fear it could take money away from public schools.
The Senate Finance Committee is scheduled to hear and take public comment on SJR9 this week. Besides Dunleavy, at least two other members of the panel — Sens. Pete Kelly and Anna Fairclough — have signed onto the proposal.
A similar proposal, pending in the House, is scheduled to be heard by the House Education Committee on Friday.
Other proposed constitutional amendments include: HJR18, from Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, which would make the attorney general an elected, rather than an appointed, job; HJR10, from Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, which would set up a transportation infrastructure fund; and HJR17, from Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, aimed at protecting Permanent Fund dividends.
HEARING REFERENDA: HB274, from the House Rules Committee, would require the lieutenant governor, at least 30 days before an election, to hold at least two public hearings in each of the state's four judicial districts on a referendum appearing on the ballot. The hearings would have to include testimony from at least one supporter and one opponent. The bill, if passed as proposed, would apply to the oil tax referendum scheduled to appear on the August primary ballot.
A law passed in 2010 required similar public hearings on initiatives scheduled for the ballot but did not include referenda. An initiative is a way in which the people can propose and pass a law, independent of the Legislature. A referendum is a way for people to reject or approve of a law passed by the Legislature.
The oil tax referendum will be the first referendum to appear on a ballot in Alaska since 2000.
Other provisions of the bill, related to legislative hearings, would apply to referenda on ballots after August 2014.
House Rules Chair Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, said the bill is aimed at addressing an oversight in the current law. He called it "cleanup language." A similar bill was introduced in the Senate on Friday.
PIPELINE BILL: Senate Resources on Friday is expected to start hearings on SB138, which was proposed by Parnell as a way to advance the liquefied natural gas project to a phase of preliminary engineering and design.
The panel last week got overviews from Parnell administration officials of agreements setting out terms for how the parties would move forward if the legislation were passed. The administration has promised a phased process, with legislative involvement along the way, in pursuit of the long hoped-for gas line.
The committee also has its first Saturday meeting of the session scheduled for hearings on other bills this week. Chairwoman Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, has said she expects gas line issues to consume much of the panel's time and was looking at Saturday meetings to allow time for hearings and public comments on other issues.