State Sales Tax Shot Down
"Alaska is open for business" was the theme of the first session of the 23rd Legislature, as the Republican-led majority, with support from newly-elected Governor Frank Murkowski, passed a suite of bills designed to aid resource development. Lawmakers approved tax credits for oil and gas exploration; revamped the Alaska Coastal Management program to streamline permitting, including the transfer of the Habitat Division to the Department of Natural Resources; allowed the Governor to begin negotiations with major oil producers over a natural gas pipeline, and adopted measures to encourage development of shallow natural gas resources. Legislators also repealed an automatic inflation adjustment to the minimum wage, required losing public interest litigants in certain cases to pay attorney's fees, and established the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority.
Lawmakers rejected the Governor's proposals for a three percent statewide sales tax and to use more than $600 million a year from Alaska Permanent Fund earnings to help fill the state's budget deficit. Legislators did approve a tax on the rental of cars and recreational vehicles, and in a 2004 special session, approved a $1 per-pack cigarette tax to be phased-in over three years.
In other business, Legislators reduced the income eligibility limit for the Denali KidCare program, authorized the establishment of a state agency program performance management system, allowed residents to carry concealed handguns without a permit, and passed the Health Care Decisions Act. In 2004, in a bipartisan effort, Legislators boosted education funding with a one-time $82 million appropriation for the 2004-2005 school year.
In 2004, voters rejected citizen's initiatives to ban bear baiting for the purpose of hunting, photography, or viewing; and to remove civil and criminal penalties under state law for persons 21 years or older who grow, use, sell or give away marijuana or hemp products. Voters approved a legislature-proposed change in signature- gathering requirements for initiative and referendum petitions.
Beyond the Legislature
Ramona Barnes, former state Representative and Alaska's first female speaker of the House, and Frank Ferguson, former Kotzebue lawmaker and Alaska Native leader, both pass away.
The Selendang Ayu, a Malaysian cargo ship, grounds and breaks up in rough seas off the coast of Unalaska spilling 210,000 gallons of fuel and its cargo of soybeans.
Facebook launches as a social networking site open only to students at Harvard University.
Space shuttle Columbia disintegrates on re-entry, killing all seven astronauts aboard.
Iraq War begins.
Federal judge orders Exxon to pay $6.75 billion for 1989 oil spill.