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Senate moves to lengthen sessions

Compromise measure may struggle to clear House until next year

Posted: April 6, 2011 - 9:32pm

Alaska is getting closer to once again having four-month long legislative sessions, even if those longer sessions don’t return for a few years.

The Alaska Senate Wednesday passed a bill calling for 120-day sessions in the second year of each two-year legislative term, instead of the current 90 called for under state law. The measure passed 12-5.

It’s one of just a handful of bills to have passed the Senate so far this year, but it’s questionable whether there will be time for the House to act on it before it is scheduled to adjourn April 17.

“I’m not sure we’ll have enough time to get to it, and that’s the 90-day sessions,” joked Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau.

The Juneau delegation all support the longer sessions, with Egan voting for it Wednesday.

Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau, predicted the bill will pass the House as well, but not until next year.

“There are a lot of big issues we are dealing with,” she said, including the budget, oil taxes, coastal zone renewal and education funding.

“It’s logical that this will be dealt with next session,” Muñoz said. “It’s my prediction that it will pass next session.”

On the Senate Floor Wednesday, senators said the shorter sessions rushed the process and led to inadequate analysis of complicated issues, but one of the concerns shared by many was that the shorter sessions risked excluding the public from key decisions.

“It’s better for people who want to testify,” said Sen. Albert Kookesh, D-Angoon, whose far-flung constituents have some of the most difficult travel and communications challenges in Alaska. His district stretches from southern Southeast Alaska into the Interior.

The bill has bipartisan support, and bipartisan opposition in the Senate.

Sen. Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, the Republican Minority Leader, joined Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, in opposing it.

Legislative sessions where shortened from the constitutional maximum of 120 days to a statutorily mandated 90 days following a 2006 initiative measure led by three legislators who had been unable to persuade their colleagues to vote for the change.

It was passed 50.8 percent to 49.2 percent by the public.

Huggins said he was one of those voting for the shorter sessions, and urged senators to go with the vote of the people.

“I think its important we look at respecting that,” he said.

But Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, said the shorter sessions were limiting legislators’ ability to have oversight over state agencies. They also limit their ability to help constituents, he said.

“We are their avenue to deal with the problems they’re having with state agencies,” he said.

Kerttula said 90-day sessions have resulted in a deluge of people trying to get their views heard by legislators, and committees that are gridlocked and overwhelmed.

“They don’t have enough time to interact with us,” she said.

She said she’d prefer 120 days both years of a session, but the Senate bill extends only the second year.

Because it is not likely to pass until next year, the first 120-day session would not be until 2014.

Muñoz said she expected Senate Bill 18, which passed Wednesday, to become the session length bill to move forward, although there are also other session length bills in the House.

“I think it’s a good compromise,” she said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 586-4816 or at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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