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House committee votes to cut session from 120 to 90 days

Legislation expected to face stiff opposition from many state lawmakers

Posted: Thursday, January 22, 2004

Cutting the amount of time lawmakers have to pass bills in the Legislature from year to year may be a welcomed proposal to some Alaskans.

But many in the Legislature oppose reducing the session from 120 days to 90 because it would give too much power to the governor.

The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday passed a resolution to slice one month off the session, but the bill could have a hard time making it through the rest of the Legislature.

"It's an uphill battle," said state Rep. Ralph Samuels, an Anchorage Republican who authored House Joint Resolution 4.

Samuels said it is logistically possible for lawmakers to do their work in 90 days and that making sessions shorter would attract more citizens to run for state office.

If 90 days isn't enough, lawmakers could work on legislation in between sessions, Samuels said.

But for Samuels it's not all about a more efficient government.

"I'd like to spend more time at home to be perfectly honest," Samuels said. "The job is tough enough. You're going to get hit by rocks every other day by one side or another. It's tough enough, and it would be a little easier if you were a little closer to home."

Sen. President Gene Therriault, a North Pole Republican who negotiates closely with the administration throughout the session, warned that 90 days wouldn't give lawmakers enough time to fully consider the governor's budget and other proposals.

The governor of Alaska has the power to appoint all department heads and the power to veto items line by line in the budget, making him one of the most powerful of all governors in the 50 states.

"If you cut (the session) too short, then you've basically tilted the power toward the administration," Therriault said. "And, I think, to tell you the truth, the 120 days we have right now is a good balance."

In Juneau, some are concerned that cutting the session to three months would result in less revenue for local businesses.

Juneau City Manager Rod Swope said it is uncertain how much revenue Juneau would lose, but he noted it would impact rental income and the city sales tax.

Rep. Beth Kerttula, a Juneau Democrat, said cutting the session to 90 days might be more efficient, but it gives agencies and corporations more time to lobby the administration without the presence of the Legislature.

"We're supposed to do our business in public," Kerttula said. "And as a lawmaker from Juneau, it means 30 days of no rents."

Samuels said that the shorter sessions would save the state close to $1 million a year, but acknowledged that the fiscal note to the bill does not account for increased interim committee meetings.

Committees with cumbersome work loads such as the House and Senate finance committees might have to work outside of the regular legislative session to complete the state's business.

Republican Sen. Gary Wilken, co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, agreed that limiting the session would save money and broaden the pool of potential lawmakers.

But Wilken noted that his committee likely would have to hold meetings before or after the session to craft an annual budget.

"Work always extends in the amount of time you have to do it," Wilken said. "Can we get the work done in 90 days? Sure we can. Will it be more difficult? Yes."

It will take an amendment to the Alaska Constitution to shorten the session, which requires a two-thirds majority vote in the state House and Senate.

If passed by the Legislature this session, the bill would go to a vote of the people in the November 2004 general election.

• Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at timothyi@juneauempire.com.



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