Conference committees established under Legislative Uniform Rule 42 are as natural to the legislative process as cottonwood buds are to spring. The state's operating budget always goes to the conference committee, marking the closure of the regular session. These six-member (three-House, three-Senate) committees settle disagreements between bodies on big-ticket bills. The members seated on the committee generally are not there to express their personal lawmaking opinions but those of the leadership in the House or Senate.
Conference committee meetings are generally (IMHO) dull meetings. Deals are worked out on specific "conferencable" items behind the scenes and unveiled in committee. The public gets to watch the shadow-play from a distance, and absent a real good relationship with legislative leadership or the Governor -often through a lobbyist - you pretty much get what you get and don't throw a fit.
It is not a surprise that this Governor, whose central goal seems to be unsustainable budgets (zero new income strategies while overspending against the health of the Permanent Fund), would add $100 million in budget amendments at the very last minute. The Senate passed the budget with the Governor's amendments. The document is now before the "Conference Committee on HB 69 and HB 71. A lot, a lot of money has been allocated to the Mat-Su region in this budget. Some very non-Mat-Su legislators appear to agree that this is ok which is a sign that deals were made with the Governor.
One of the most galling items that the Governor added to our public money spending plan is the $8.5 million for the West Sustina Access project. Nova Minerals Limited is a subsidiary of an Australian mining firm, and they have a project that requires road access. The Governor is asking all of Alaska (you, me, and our legislators) to forego $8.5 million in pothole repair, deferred maintenance on bridges and schools so that he can give a gift of $8.5 million to Nova Minerals Limited. In turn, should it develop a project, it will provide the state budget approximately zero in tax money in return--take a look at the mining tax structure in AK sometime; it is a joke.
Savvy legislators removed funding for this project earlier this year from a draft of the proposed General Obligation Bond bill - which was a smart move. A controversial project like West Susitna Access would have caused a lot of trouble for the public vote on the GO Bond. Inserting it last minute into the budget provides some insulation because the public can only react by unelecting a lawmaker who approves of this transaction. It probably is not something that will remain in voters' memory until the next election.
While the conference committee process may be hard to follow, it's still important to weigh in with your public comment as the members work to reconcile the House and Senate budget numbers. We need Alaskan voices! Tell them to remove the $8.5 million gift to Nova Minerals Limited >>
Government Affairs Director
P.S. Want to know which bills made it entirely through the legislative process this session? You can find the listing here >>
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