- Associated Press - Friday, April 25, 2014

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - The Alaska Legislature adjourned Friday, ending an extended session after reaching compromises on education and a south-central Alaska bridge project.

The House adjourned first, ending amid whoops and hollers around 3 p.m. Friday, five days later than scheduled. The Senate followed about 50 minutes later after signing off on the capital budget. Gov. Sean Parnell came down to the second floor, where the House and Senate chambers are located, to congratulate lawmakers on finishing their work.

Republicans, who control the House and Senate, hailed the session as a success, citing as accomplishments passage of a bill setting Alaska’s participation in a major liquefied natural gas project, the education package and the infusion of $3 billion from savings to help pay down the state’s unfunded pension obligation.

“I think we can hold our heads up high,” Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, told reporters. “We went a little long, but I think the people’s work got done.”

Minority Democrats counted as victories bills that didn’t pass, including a proposed constitutional amendment to allow public money to be used for private or religious schools and a bill to raise the minimum wage.

While Democrats support a wage hike, they resisted a Republican-led bill to do so. They feared a repeat of the past - lawmakers passed a minimum wage bill in 2002 only to gut it a year later - and preferred to let voters decide in November, when it will appear as a ballot initiative.

The 90-day session was scheduled to end Sunday, but lawmakers went into overtime after failing to reach agreement on an education package.

Then, with a tentative agreement on education announced Wednesday, the House rejected a Senate-approved financing plan for the proposed Knik Arm bridge project, creating another snag lawmakers needed to resolve. Both issues were wrapped up Friday after several days of fits and starts, during which some lawmakers began to lose their patience with the pace of progress.

The mood was notably lighter Friday, when meetings took place on time, floor sessions rolled with relatively limited debate and people knew the end was at hand.

While the Alaska Constitution allows for lawmakers to meet for up to 121 days, legislative leaders in the past have been loath to go beyond the 90 days approved by voters in 2006. By extending, lawmakers kept in play all bills, which is how the bridge bill re-emerged.

Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, called Republicans’ time management poor, and said the 90-day session should be considered a failed experiment, resulting in less public influence on decision-making because of the compressed schedule.

One of the contentious bills, the education package calls for an additional $300 million in school aid over the next three years, divided between the per-student funding formula - known as the base student allocation - and funding outside the formula and for other programs and studies. Supporters called it a good compromise.

It also included additional support for charter, residential and correspondence schools, and things such as funding for Internet services for schools with slower download speeds. But critics called it a flop, saying it fell short on funding needed to reverse cuts.

“Fail this bill,” Senate Minority Leader Hollis French, D-Anchorage, said on the Senate floor. The compromise isn’t visionary and looked like the easy way out, he said.

The compromise essentially split the difference between the House and Senate approaches. The House had proposed a roughly $300 increase in the formula over three years plus an additional $30 million to districts. The Senate had proposed $100 million a year for three years outside the formula, which some lawmakers say is broken and in need of review. The compromise bill also calls for study of how the state funds schools.

Minority Democrats supported a $650 increase in the formula over three years to help stave off cuts. That position was supported by groups like the parent-supported Great Alaska Schools.

Parnell, who helped broker the compromise, told reporters it validated the arguments of both sides: those that see money in the allocation as providing stability and certainty for districts and those who want to see change, innovation and more opportunities for kids.

“I see this glass as half-full and not half-empty,” he said.

The other compromise was the bridge bill, which stripped the Knik Bridge Arm and Toll Authority of many of its powers, including right of eminent domain, and put the state transportation department in charge of building the proposed structure from Anchorage to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. The financing structure would remain the same as that approved by the Senate earlier this month, including federal loans and funds and state bond proceeds, with the department authorized to pursue the federal loans.

If a bridge is built, the authority could operate and manage it, under the compromise bill.

Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, said in an interview that she wasn’t comfortable eliminating the bridge authority entirely, but she thought it was a good idea to put the project under the purview of the transit department.

Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, said the bill was an improvement but she still had concerns about the ultimate cost of the project.

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