New measure looks to cut session

Posted: Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Alaska legislators have talked about trimming the session to 90 days for some 15 years, but this year a bill has pumped new life into the issue because it may require fewer votes to pass than previous proposals.

Two Anchorage Republicans, Reps. Ralph Samuels and Norm Rokeberg, say they've come up with a new plan that might win over the critics who maintain they still need 121 days, if not more, to flesh out bills.

"It's not the money issue. It's a public participation issue," said Samuels, during a Tuesday hearing of House Bill 22 at the House Finance Committee.

Cutting the session by 30 days would save the state about $1 million, and Samuels argued more candidates could run for office if they have more time off from the session to run their businesses. Also, committee meetings held in the interim throughout the state would allow more Alaskans to have contact with legislators at hearings, he said.

Meetings held between sessions would have the power to move legislation forward, shaving time off the session and allowing lawmakers to hit the ground running in Juneau, Rokeberg said. At present, committees do not have that power.

The change requires separate legislation to modify the body's uniform rules and would need two-thirds approval from the Legislature.

But Samuels' and Rokeberg's plan would involve a statutory change in need of a majority, rather than a two-thirds vote, which was why the proposals have not passed since attempts to trim the session began in 1990, Rokeberg said.

"I think it will help Juneau keep the capital," said Rokeberg, explaining that the traveling committee meetings and the shorter session may extinguish gripes lawmakers have over long stays away from their families, businesses and constituents.

Juneau restaurant and hotel managers figure they would lose 25 percent of their winter business if the session is cut.

"We only exist in the winter because of the session," said Steve Hamilton, assistant general manager at the Baranof Hotel. He said his business not only caters to legislators, but their staff, lobbyists and others who fly into Juneau for the session.

El Sombrero co-owner Fritz Moser said he too would lose business. But he said the proposal is faulty for political reasons as well.

"There's always something that comes up at the end of the session that needs attention," Moser said.

Rep. Richard Foster, a Nome Democrat who has seen 17 special sessions held during his 18 years as a legislator, agreed the 60-member Legislature cannot finish its work even during the current limit.

Five of those special sessions focused on subsistence legislation, an issue the Bush caucus fought for, Foster said. He sees minorities having less time to get their bills heard under the new proposal.

More importantly, Foster said being a legislator is about spending time on making laws.

"Our primary job is to represent the people," Foster said. "It's not to go home and run a business."

The words "balance of power" continued to surface among the bill's critics on Tuesday. Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, said a shorter session gives the governor opportunity to focus on his agenda and less time for legislators to repair his bills, if they object.

"It's easier not to get things done," Elton added.

Juneau Assembly member Jonathan Anderson, who teaches public administration at the University of Southeast Alaska, said citizens often perceive the Legislature as doing nothing until the last two weeks.

"You can't say that nothing goes on," said Anderson, agreeing that lawmakers are busy meeting with state experts in Juneau, debating bills in committees and corresponding with constituents.

The city does not have an official position on this bill, he said. From a personal standpoint, he said it is difficult to measure because it's an emotional issue over whether lawmakers waste their time.

• Andrew Petty can be reached at andrew.petty@juneauempire.com.



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