Governor critical to speeding session's end, senator says

JUNEAU -- Gov. Sean Parnell, who's had an at-times prickly relationship with the Senate, now stands as the central figure in making progress toward the end of the special session.

It's not clear what more Parnell will need to say or do to advance the budget talks between the Senate and House; Sen. Bert Stedman allowed as only that there are "a lot of component parts" in the negotiations. Besides the capital budget, the outstanding issues on the special session agenda are coastal management and long-term funding for one of Parnell's pet projects, student scholarships.

But Stedman said Thursday that Parnell is "very critical" to helping reach an acceptable solution to the capital budget mess more quickly. Parnell himself has seemed to have taken on a more active role in the process as the session grinds through its third week.

This week alone, Parnell has spoken by phone or met personally with Senate leaders each day.

"Every day, I work for Alaskans. Every day, the Senate and the House work for Alaskans," Parnell said. "And I think if we put our shoulder to the wheel here, I think I can help the Legislature finish, adjourn, and we can get a budget that will put Alaskans to work and grow our economy."

That's a big departure from last month, when the regular session ended in chaos and finger-pointing and the special session started off with what Stedman has come to call the "love letter," a missive from Parnell that accused leading senators of holding the capital budget hostage and trying to elicit promises that their energy projects won't be cut before passing the spending bill and sending it to the House.

Stedman and his Senate Finance Committee co-chair, Lyman Hoffman, had intermittent communication with the governor following the April 19 letter. Last week, Parnell refused to meet privately with the Senate's bipartisan majority bloc, prompting Senate President Gary Stevens to conclude that he'd removed himself from efforts to reach a compromise.

Just a few days ago, Stevens said, Parnell showed up at his office to talk. Stevens took that as a "clear indication that he's fully engaged in this and would like to see us find a way to come to a conclusion that allows everyone to have some success and move ahead."

It's just getting there that is tough -- and at times emotionally taxing. Some days, legislative leaders talk about a very real possibility of ending the special session without a capital budget; other days, like Thursday, Stevens and Stedman say they see an end in sight. Stevens said Thursday morning it's possible that work could be completed next week.

A major stumbling block has continued to be contingency and non-severability language that the Senate Finance Committee added to its version of the capital bill. Senate leaders have branded the language -- making about $400 million in energy projects an as-is, all-or-nothing package -- necessary to protect projects they deem important from vetoes. Parnell in late March said he'd need to rein in capital spending even more if a bill addressing oil taxes stalled, and some senators took that as a threat that their projects could be cut since the tax bill ultimately faltered in the Senate.

The House has refused to agree to the language, and the Senate Finance Committee has said it won't advance a bill without a deal.

While Parnell has said repeatedly that he won't abuse his veto authority, cuts made by his predecessor, Sarah Palin -- nearly $500 million from the capital budget over two years -- are still fresh in the minds of many lawmakers, some of whom question how fair she was in striking projects.

Stedman acknowledged the language probably wouldn't be in the budget if the veto pen had been used judiciously in the past. Stevens said it's too early to see whether the Senate will strike the language.

Parnell's message has been consistent: send the House a bill and hash out any differences in a conference committee. But he's also made clear his desire to "work to assure the Legislature finishes what was started and adjourn."

He refused to speculate on whether he'd keep lawmakers here another 30 days if no agreement on the capital budget were reached, saying he remained optimistic.

"This is not a chasm that's too big to bridge or cross," he said.