Minnesota, West Virginia, Washington Adjourn; Alaska In Special Session

While Minnesota's governor and lawmakers celebrate the end of a legislative session that gave citizens the largest tax cut in state history, Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles has ordered his legislature to continue work in a special session until they forge a long-term budget plan. West Virginia and Washington lawmakers wrapped up special sessions this week by passing compromise bills on nagging issues, bringing to 27 the number of legislatures which have completed work for the year.  

Before the session's closing gavel sounded, Minnesota legislators approved $2.9 billion in tax relief, okayed funding for a light rail system, and authorized creation of anti-smoking and public health endowments.

"The people of Minnesota can be proud of what we accomplished this legislative session. All taxpayers, especially middle income, are going to get a nice break and every taxpayer can look forward to a good-sized check toward the end of the summer," Reform Gov. Jesse Ventura said.

The tax relief and refund bill, passed by the Minnesota House 119-13 and by the Senate 65-1, gives each taxpayer more than $600 in a one-time income tax rebate and provides an approximate 9 percent reduction in income taxes.

Take home pay for Minnesotans will get bigger as early as July due to the shaving of one-half of one percent from the bottom and top income brackets tax rates and three-quarters of a percent from middle income bracket rates.

Revenue officials estimate tax savings of $229 for a single person making $50,000; a two wage-earner couple with gross income of $75,000 would see their taxes drop $455, nearly 14 percent.

Legislative leaders crowed about the results of the session, saying it proves they were not deaf to desires of citizens for a session of compromise and action.

"We cut taxes, funded the schools, helped farmers struggling in rural Minnesota and did many other good things. This was a session marked, at the end, by tripartisanship," House Speaker Steve Sviggum told the Minneapolis Star Tribune, referring to the middle ground found by Republicans, Democrats and a Reform party governor.

Bowing to the desires of constituents seemed an easy decision for lawmakersthe entire House and Senate memberships stand for election in 2000, with the newly elected legislature authorized to redraw legislative district boundaries based on the 2000 census.

In addition to passing the record tax package, the Minnesota legislature provided struggling farmers $120 million in special aid and tax relief, approved funds to hire more welfare case workers, earmarked $99 million for reducing class-size in public schools and created a third-party appeals process for HMO claims disputes.

Legislators didn't find success everywhere: they failed to agree on proposals to manage the state's wolf population and remove the animals from the endangered species list. They also balked at repealing a medical services provider tax.

The legislators also passed a controversial health and human services bill that, after much debate, did not include any new provision regarding abortion rights.

While Minnesota legislators ended the 1999 session by giving themselves a standing ovation, lawmakers in Alaska found themselves facing an extended session and a tongue lashing from the governor.

With less than a half-hour remaining in the regular legislative session and no solution for Alaska's budget crisis in sight, Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles called for a special session to begin Thursday and last until an agreement is reached. By state law, the session can last up to 30 days.

"This session opened 121 days ago with near universal agreement that the Legislature must take action this year to address the billion dollar budget gap. Everyone agrees that we need to have a plan, but it was not coming together," Knowles said.

Lawmakers were directed by the governor to address three specific issues: a long-term budget plan, the Fiscal 2000 capital budget and use of the Constitutional Budget Reserve to fund the budget.

Alaska's budget battle overshadowed much of the work done by the legislature, including the shelving of a controversial bill to loosen campaign funding restrictions brought about by voter pressure. Republicans said the bill makes only minor changes in funding laws, but citizen watchdogs dubbed it the "Incumbents Protection Act."

House Speaker Brian Porter banished the bill to the Rules Committee on the final day of the session, promising that it would be taken up next year.

The bill would increase the amount of leftover campaign money a candidate can bring into the next election. The carry-over limit for governor candidates would double to $100,000, limits for House candidates would quadruple to $20,000, and limits for Senate candidates would rise to $40,000.

Candidates could also accept gifts of political polls without counting them as contributions, as long as the poll was not designed primarily for the candidate's benefit, a vague condition that has legislature-watchers up in arms. The proposal also returns the right of corporations and unions to sponsor political events--a practice banned by a 1996 campaign finance reform law.

Two other states, Washington and West Virginia, successfully completed their special sessions by reaching compromise on nagging holdover issues.

Washington lawmakers regained their composure after a regular session marked by charges of broken deals, political payback and the "perception of corruption," completing a three-day special session with agreements on transportation funding, school safety and salmon restoration.

House and Senate leaders finally agreed on a $4 billion transportation budget, which had been derailed by Senate attempts to dismantle an agency called the Legislative Transportation Committee. House leaders saved the agency, but agreed to appropriate the Senate's share of its budget directly to the Senate Transportation Committee.

At the request of Democratic Gov. Gary Locke, both the House and Senate unanimously approved measures to pump another $7 million into school safety programs. The action allows Washington's 296 school districts to apply for money to pay for additional security guards, metal detectors and cameras, and sets aside funds to start alternative schools for troubled students.

The bill survived an attempted amendment earmarking money to combat malicious harassment of minorities, the disabled, homosexuals and other minority groups in public schools. Conservative lawmakers promised to block passage of the funding bill unless the amendment was withdrawn. Its Democratic sponsor eventually relented.

West Virginia's special session, dedicated to reforming the state's family law system, moved closer to an end Thursday with a compromise agreement on the issue. Legislators also used the extra session to advance supplemental appropriations bills for the current budget year, adding $4 million of the state's budget surplus to the governor's civil contingency fund, an account that can be spent at the governor's discretion to deal with state emergencies

Republican Gov. Cecil Underwood vetoed earlier versions of family law bills passed during the regular session, but is expected to sign the compromise bill. Committee members rejected by an 11-10 margin an amendment to change the year that family law masters would have to run for election to 2002. That would have broken a compromise agreement with the Senate to elect the 33 law masters in 2000, but to six-year terms.

Delegate Shelley Moore Capito said it will be confusing to voters to have elections of family law masters on the same ballot as a constitutional amendment that would authorize the Legislature to create a true family court system.