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Initiative hearings, bills on court securities, food stamps 3 things to watch this week

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JUNEAU, Alaska — With the regular session down to its last month and legislative leaders still hoping to finish up early, major issues remain unresolved.

There's the bill to advance a major liquefied natural-gas project, which currently has three committees of referral in the House; state budgets; proposed changes to and possible increased funding for the education system; and addressing the state's unfunded pension obligation.

The 90-day session is scheduled to end April 20, which is Easter Sunday. Senate President Charlie Huggins and House Speaker Mike Chenault have said they'd like to finish their work before then and, if possible, before Good Friday, which is April 18.

But Chenault, R-Nikiski, said that if lawmakers need more time, "then that's how long we have to stay to get the work done."

Rep. Eric Feige, R-Chickaloon, said the House Resources Committee, which he co-chairs, hopes to advance a version of SB138, the gas-line bill, by April 4. The committee, which held briefings on project-related issues while waiting for SB138 to come over from the Senate, plans daily hearings this coming week. The House Finance Committee plans project-related hearings. The Senate passed the bill 15-5 this past week.

SB138 also has a referral to the House Labor and Commerce Committee.

Feige said probably the biggest concern is with how TransCanada Corp. has been incorporated in the process, but he said it's not a "showstopper" issue. Similar concerns have come up on the Senate side.

The state has signed an agreement with TransCanada to hold its interest in the pipeline and gas-treatment plant, with the state having an option to buy back some of the equity. The agreement, subject to the passage of enabling legislation, also has been cast as a transition away from terms of the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act, under which the company for years pursued a project with ExxonMobil Corp. In recent years, some lawmakers, particularly in the House, lost patience with the process as it was proceeding under the inducement act.

Feige said there's a lot of history and some "old feelings perhaps." But he said he thought members could work their way through all of that and come to a good decision.

Here are three more things to watch for this coming week:

—INITIATIVE HEARINGS: The Senate Judiciary Committee plans hearings Saturday on two ballot initiatives, one that would legalize the recreational use of marijuana and another that would increase the state's minimum wage by $2 an hour over two years.

The committee's chair, Sen. John Coghill, said he also invited the House Judiciary Committee to the hearings.

A 2010 state law called for a legislative committee selected by the presiding officers of the Alaska House and Senate to hold at least one hearing on an initiative deemed by the lieutenant governor to have been properly filed within 30 days after the start of a session preceding the election. The law was aimed at providing the public with more information surrounding ballot initiatives. It also requires the lieutenant governor to hold hearings around the state at least 30 days before an election on initiatives scheduled to appear on the ballot.

Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell in December certified an initiative that would require legislative approval for a large-scale metallic-sulfide mining operation within the watershed of the Bristol Bay Fisheries Reserve. In January, before the start of the legislative session, supporters of the minimum-wage and marijuana measures turned in signatures seeking to get their measures on the ballot. Both those were certified last month, after the 30th legislative day.

For each of the two hearings, Coghill said he plans to have people on both sides of the issue speak. He also intends to get a legal review and hear about any economic impacts.

He plans to provide time for public comment as well, Coghill said. He has set aside three hours for each of the initiatives.

"The policy call is up to the people of Alaska," said Coghill, R-North Pole. "But the issues — the legal, the practical, the economic issues — need to be on the table."

Coghill said he won't have a hearing on the Bristol Bay initiative, noting it had been certified before the legislative session began and the tight timeline for scheduling these hearings. The lawmaker also said he didn't know how best to tackle a potential legal and economic review, saying those impacts were going to be different than with the other initiatives.

—SECURITIES FOR INJUNCTIONS: The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hear HB47, from Feige. The bill would require those seeking to stop certain permitted projects to post a security in an amount deemed proper by a judge for costs or damages that may be incurred by an industrial operation if that operation were "wrongfully enjoined or restrained." An industrial operation would include construction, timber and oil and gas development activities.

Upon the bill's passage in the House earlier this month, Feige, in a statement, said the bill "brings fairness and equity to the process and will make those who look to stall or kill worthwhile, legally permitted projects think twice and pony up in order to make their case."

Critics contend the bar for seeking and securing restraining orders or preliminary injunctions is already high.

The security requirement would not apply if the authorization being challenged was made through a program for which the state has assumed primacy from the federal government. Feige's office, in a backup document, said that exception was added because the state had been concerned that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or Department of Interior might view the injunction provision as "chilling third parties' access to the court" if those parties challenged permits issued by state agencies under programs developed under federal law and approved by a federal agency.

James Sullivan, a spokesman for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, said that while the state complains about federal overreach, this seems to him to be an "overreach of state government, as they try and quash people's ability to access the courts to protect lands or areas that they use or might be adjacent to."

— FOOD STAMPS FOR FELONS: HB347, from Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage, would allow for felons convicted of certain drug crimes after Aug. 22, 1996, to be eligible for temporary assistance or food stamps if the person satisfactorily demonstrates that he or she has been rehabilitated for an addiction to a controlled substance.

Tarr, in her sponsor statement, said that since the passage of federal welfare-reform legislation in the 1990s, most states have fully or partially stopped denying benefits to people convicted of felony drug crimes. Moreover, food-stamp benefits are distributed electronically now, making tracking the use of the cards easier, she said.

Tarr added that states, like Alaska, are facing challenges with their budgets and recidivism rates.

"Convicted felons already have trouble finding steady employment when economies are healthy, and food stamps and other assistance provide crucial support during the transition period," she said. "Without this support, these individuals are more likely to return to criminal activity and drug use."

The bill is scheduled for a hearing Thursday before the House Health and Social Services Committee.


Online:

http://w3.legis.state.ak.us/

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