ANCHORAGE, Alaska—The 27th session of the Alaska Legislature is moving into uncharted territory.
Thursday night, by a vote of 14-to-2, the State Senate cast an historic, unprecedented vote to adjourn in the middle of a Special Session.
That vote came just 24 hours after Governor Sean Parnell sought to limit the mandate of the Special Session by issuing a proclamation.
On Wednesday night the governor announced on the Channel 2 News Hour that he was removing Oil Tax Reform from the list of items lawmakers were to tackle.
The governor came to that conclusion after what was widely considered a disastrous performance on the part of Revenue Commissioner Bryan Butcher before the Senate Resources Committee.
Butcher was assigned the job of defending the governor's proposed $1.46-billion-a-year tax cut for big oil, including deep cuts at existing fields. When Butcher seemed to rely more on anecdotes than on data in asserting those cuts would boost production at existing fields, he was eaten alive by the committee.
The governor's removal of an item, during the midst of a special session was, in itself, uprecedented. In the 52-year-history of our state, no governor had tried to retract an item once the Special Session had begun.
And that retraction got Senator Hollis French (D-Anchorage) wondering, was it within the governor's power to do so.
French checked with Legislative Legal Services. Within a few hours, the answer came back: No, the governor does not have the authority to remove an item from consideration once the Special Session gets underway.
With that in mind, the Senate convened for an historic vote. After a brief debate, they voted 14-to-2 to accept the "Sense of the Senate" resolution that what the governor had done was beyond his authority. After that vote, they decided to adjourn.
With that, the Special Session was over.
Or was it?
Reaction to the dramatic move was strong. On the House side, Representative Mike Chenault (R-Nikiski), the House Speaker criticized the Senate for what it did. Chenault, like the governor, wants the Special Session to deal with the controversial issue of whether to build a small-diameter natural gas pipeline from the North Slope. Studies indicate that the natural gas delivered by such a pipeline would be exceedingly expensive.
That issue -- like the issue of oil tax reform -- is in limbo.
Senators, through their vote, had dismissed Parnell's removal of the Oil Tax issue from the Senate as a "pre-emptive veto" and thus something that could violate the Separation of Powers.
But Parnell himself did not feel that way. Thursday night he issued a press release saying that he'd sought the advice of his Attorney General before withdrawing the issue of oil tax reform from the session, and Mike Geraghty's judgement was that it was within the governor's power to do so.
Parnell said he was "extremely disappointed" by the Senate's action.
The question of what will happen next may not be resolved for several days.
When The House meets on Monday, it could vote to adjourn as well. That doesn't seem likely.
Or Governor Parnell could call a new Special Session of the legislature -- one that would only mandate discussion of the gas pipeline. The governor's Press Secretary, Sharon Leighow, said that probably wasn't in the cards either.
The final possibility is that The House could vote to tell the Senate to reconvene. Another unprecedented move under these circumstances.
And so the Special Session that ended prematurely after 9 days may not be over at all.
But we're not likely to know that until Monday at the earliest.