Alaska editorial: Shortened session is not good for Alaska

Posted: Thursday, January 12, 2006

This editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

As the Alaska Legislature begins its 120-day session this week, it would be good for Alaskans to follow along with an idea of trying to understand how the process would really work if the session were reduced in length by 25 percent.

Proponents of a 90-day session don't tell you the real cost.

But the shorter session's backers need to be straightforward with Alaskans about what will be lost. The word "forced" is used here, by the way, because each chamber of the Legislature has the authority to end its session early. Nothing in law or the state Constitution says the Legislature has to spend all of its allowable 120 days in Juneau.

So why the push for 90 days?

"Well, legislatures in other states get their work done in under 90 days, so why can't we?" comes the cry. Yes, several other states do have shorter annual legislative sessions, but others have session limits similar to or greater than Alaska. Oklahoma, for example, has a limit of 160 calendar days each year. And there's no legal limit period in a dozen states - California, Idaho, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Wisconsin.

On session limits, the states are quite literally all over the map. And with states vastly different from one another and dealing with differing numbers and types of issues, it's no surprise. ...

So at what price would Alaska have a 90-day legislative session? Would it be at the expense of a few committee hearings and therefore the public comment opportunity that comes with them? Would the advance notice of those hearings be shortened to accommodate the need for speed? And would a shorter session and reduced public notice confound citizens and representatives of organizations as they try to schedule face-to-face meetings with legislators in the distant capital? Will the lobbyists who live in Juneau year-round be the only winners as their access to legislators increases at the expense of ordinary citizens who would be shut out?

That's too high of a price.

The framers of the Alaska Constitution expressed concerns about limiting the legislative session, which is why the Constitution contained no limit until it was amended by voters in 1984. "Alaska's Constitution: A citizen's guide," authored by Gordon Harrison and provided by the Legislative Affairs Agency, offers an insightful explanation of the framers' thinking regarding the duration of the legislative session:

"The framers of the constitution adopted the progressive view that the Legislature should not be rushed in its deliberations, as the business of modern state government is too complex to be transacted in hurried, infrequent sessions ... . Delegates feared that constraints on the length (and frequency) of sessions might result in ill-conceived or imprudent measures as well as a legislative disadvantage vis-a-vis the executive." ...

So what's the cost of having a shorter session? Legislators will still get paid for being legislators, though there would be some savings in the additional daily rate they are paid for being in Juneau. But the savings are slight when laid alongside the potential loss of public interaction with the legislative process.

Ninety days? No way.

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