JUNEAU, Alaska — The Alaska state Senate adjourned from special session Thursday after the governor pulled a seemingly stalled oil tax plan off the agenda.
The dramatic move leaves a gas pipeline bill unresolved and marks the latest turn in a special session that seemed doomed from the start.
In pulling his bill, Gov. Sean Parnell said Wednesday that the Senate "appears incapable of passing comprehensive oil tax reform."
Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, told reporters he took offense to Parnell's statements. "Blaming the Senate," he said, "is simply not productive."
Stevens said Parnell has not made the case for reducing taxes on the oil industry, a position shared by other lawmakers, including House Majority Leader Alan Austerman, R-Kodiak. Stevens put part of the blame on the governor's administration.
"I have to say I'm very disappointed in the governor's decision, but I'm just as disappointed in the administration's poor performance throughout the special session," Stevens said. "They could not adequately defend the governor's plan."
The day started with members of the Senate majority huddling behind closed doors to decide what they wanted to do. It ended with an unscheduled floor session and adjournment, which Sens. John Coghill and Cathy Giessel — the only members of the minority present — voted against.
In a "sense of the Senate motion," the Senate said it "rejects the governor's asserted authority" to withdraw oil taxes and his bill. It said that due to the governor's "sudden, unprecedented and unauthorized withdrawal" of the oil tax measure, "the Senate has no realistic alternative" but to adjourn.
In a legal opinion requested by Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, the Legislature's top attorney, Doug Gardner, found that if a bill was on the agenda for the special session and then removed, that action, in effect, ends the session. Assistant Attorney General Chris Poag disagreed, saying the governor acted within his authority.
After Parnell pulled oil taxes from the call, that left only HB9, the bill attempting to further advance the in-state gas pipeline, on the call.
"The governor is extremely disappointed the Senate did not take the opportunity to move forward on a gas line," Parnell's spokeswoman, Sharon Leighow, said in an email to The Associated Press.
Leighow said Parnell has not made a decision on calling another special session.
A visibly exasperated House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, said the Senate's inaction on HB9 effectively kills any opportunity for Fairbanks to have a gas pipeline in the foreseeable future, and he encouraged the city's residents to remember that when they vote. Fifty-nine of Alaska's 60 legislative seats are up election this year.
He said all he could do was "express dismay" with the Senate's actions.
The gas pipeline proposal has not made much progress. The bill has had just one hearing since the special session started April 18, and remained in the first of three committees to which it was assigned. It passed the House during the regular session, but Stevens said he didn't see enough votes for it to pass the Senate.
Supporters see the bill as further empowering the Alaska Gasline Development Corp. in its effort to advance a small-diameter pipeline that would run from the North Slope to south-central Alaska and provide gas for Alaskans. Critics, however, say it gives AGDC too much authority. They also say there are other alternatives for providing gas to Alaskans that could be cheaper.
Chenault, the bill's biggest booster, told reporters earlier in the day that the bill is worth staying in special session for. AGDC's Joe Dubler said in an email that the money provided to AGDC in the recently passed budget "is enough to keep the lights on but not to keep the project on schedule."
The Alaska Constitution states that neither chamber can adjourn for more than three days without the other concurring. Given that HB9 was the only bill left, and on the Senate side, Stevens said he saw no reason for the House to remain. If the House does remain, Stevens said he wouldn't ask the full Senate to return.
Chenault said he doesn't know what will happen next. The House will caucus Friday morning and possibly make a decision then.