A modest budget reduction proposal

The new economy

Posted: Friday, January 21, 2000

I've lived in Alaska only a decade but still can't recall a legislative session when the budget debate wasn't at the top of the agenda.

It's the same story this year: Gov. Tony Knowles wants to increase spending by $100 million this year with most of the increase earmarked for education and children's programs while the Republican majority in the Legislature wants to cut spending by $250 million over five years.

Unless my understanding of basic arithmetic is flawed, some sort of compromise is obviously necessary.

I am opposed to the privatization initiative that came out of last year's session, but I must admit that it represents a fresh approach to dealing with Alaska's ongoing budget problems.

In that spirit, let me offer another alternative plan to help deal with the budget crisis. Like the privatization initiative, my plan isn't entirely original. It has been discussed elsewhere and is frequently the topic of economists and political scientists. And while it may seem radical at first glance, it makes every bit as much economic sense as trying to save money by moving the capital to Anchorage, or slashing education and children's programs with the hope that the next generation of Alaskans will somehow acquire employment skills on their own.

Here's my plan: Change the Alaska State Legislature from a bicameral system to a unicameral system. In other words, instead of having two legislative houses (a ``bicameral'' system - the House of Representatives and the Senate) have just one House (a ``unicameral'' system). A unicameral Legislature could save quite a bit of money immediately because Alaskans would be required to pay for the salaries of only half as many elected representatives and their legislative staffs.

There are several other reasons to adopt a unicameral Legislature in addition to saving money. First, if current legislators are serious about saving money by having the state government play a smaller role in the economy and do fewer things for Alaskans, then a smaller legislative body just makes sense.

A second reason is that a unicameral Legislature should operate more expeditiously because there would be fewer hoops to jump through before bills could become laws.

A third reason for moving to a unicameral legislature was suggested in a recent paper in the prestigious American Economic Review. According to this study, bicameral legislatures encourage the development of internal veto powers in one of the two legislative chambers which can bog down the legislative process. On the other hand, unicameral legislatures tend to encourage lawmakers to delegate power to a leader. One implication of this idea is that unicameral legislatures can get more work done while bicameral legislatures tend to get tied up in power struggles - a point that seems verified by the need for so many special sessions in recent years.

There is yet another advantage of a one-house Legislature, one that may be especially appealing to the people most frustrated about our current system: Because a unicameral Legislature would require statewide redistricting, there would be no incumbents in the first election of the new Legislature. I'm sure many current legislators would run for the seats in the new unicameral Legislature, but they would likely face different challengers and different voters because of redistricting.

I don't want to make too much of the advantages of a shift to a unicameral Legislature. Legislative systems are exceedingly complex and their performance depends on several factors in addition to their structure - the existence of veto power, the power of committees, and so on.

But the fact remains: If our elected officials are indeed serious about slashing the role of state government, then they should welcome the opportunity to carry out the business of government with fewer elected officials.

Such a change would, of course, require an amendment to the state constitution. Perhaps we could tie this measure to the capital move and vote on them at the same time.

Bill Brown teaches economics at the University of Alaska Southeast. He can be reached at william.brown@uas. alaska.edu.

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