Seeking Shorter sessions

Bills to limit Legislature pass House and Senate committees

Posted: Sunday, January 23, 2000

Lawmakers are trying to shorten the amount of time they spend in Juneau.

Rather than debate the budget every year, the Legislature would set two-year spending plans under a proposal approved Friday by the House Judiciary Committee. Under the proposal legislative sessions would be shortened from 121 to 60 days during non-budget years.

A Senate proposal to shorten the legislature's annual session from 121 days to 75 days, without altering the budget process, also passed its first committee Friday with little difficulty.

The House constitutional amendment providing for a biennial budget is sponsored by Rep. Gail Phillips, a Homer Republican. She said the change in budgeting should make state government more efficient and effective, and could save money.

``Where it would make a significant impact is with the agencies,'' Phillips said. Instead of spending three or four months every year working on their budgets, ``they would be able to become far more productive in the programs they're putting into place.''

If revenues changed dramatically during an off-year, the Legislature still could make changes during those years, Phillips said.

The measure received support from the five members of the Judiciary Committee present. The governor also supports it, according to Jack Fargnoli, a senior policy analyst with the Office of Management and Budget.

Rep. Eric Croft, an Anchorage Democrat, said in addition to possible savings for the state government, the change would save money and time for other Alaskans who come to Juneau every year to lobby on budget issues.

``It seems like there's just a societal savings,'' Croft said.

Rep. Norm Rokeburg, an Anchorage Republican, has opposed the change to biennial budgeting in the past, but he supported the proposal Friday.

Several issues troubled him in the past, he said. One was the fact that Alaska's budget is so dependent on oil revenues, which can fluctuate widely from year to year. Another concern was that setting the budget for two years instead of one, loosens the Legislature's control on the state's purse-strings.

``We're in a certain sense giving up ... legislative power,'' he said.

Rokeburg said he decided to support this proposal because he believes a long-term fiscal plan will be adopted within a few years, which will provide more year-to-year stability in income.

Also, he likes the idea of limiting legislative sessions during non-budget years to 60 days and he believes agencies will operate more effectively with two-year budgets.

If approved by both the House and Senate, the constitutional amendment would go to voters this fall.

The Senate proposal by Sen. Sean Parnell, an Anchorage Republican, is also in the form of a constitutional amendment. He said a 75-day session will save the state money and entice more candidates to run for the Legislature.

``The legislative process can expand to fill whatever time we give it,'' Parnell said, adding that the Legislative Affairs Agency has estimated the state would save more than $2 million on the change.

The Legislature now convenes in January and meets until mid-May. Parnell's measure would push opening day to late February.

Parnell also hopes to foster a citizens' Legislature by creating a system that conflicts less with lawmakers' jobs. Parnell, an attorney, puts his practice on hold each year and moves his family to the capital for the session. People in other fields have less flexibility to make that commitment.

``This is our 15th move in 7 years,'' Parnell said. ``It really boils down to being away from home from January through May.''

The measure drew little dissent from the three members of the Senate Judiciary Committee present on Friday. Chairman Robin Taylor, a Wrangell Republican, suggested that the starting date might be moved back to January to accommodate lawmakers who work in seasonal industries such as fishing.

``I think the deader part of winter is better,'' Taylor said.

Parnell said he was concerned that might give legislative budget-writers less time to work after the Department of Revenue issues its annual spring revenue forecast.

Sen. John Torgerson, a Kasilof Republican who co-chairs the Senate Finance Committee with Parnell, called the proposal ``very workable'' but observed that some lawmakers might find themselves working more in the interim between sessions.

``I'm not sure the amount of work is going to change,'' said Torgerson, R-Kasilof.

Rick Urion, a former member of the Legislature who now works as a lobbyist, testified in favor of the measure.

``The Legislature is sort of like water. It will occupy whatever space you give it,'' Urion said. ``If you could harness the wasted energy in this building, you could light the state for the year.''

Urion served before 121-day limit was imposed in 1984.

``It was horrible here before the limit,'' said Urion, recalling sessions that dragged into summer as lawmakers tried to wrangle concessions in return for adjournment votes.

Parnell's amendment now moves to the Senate Finance Committee. To become part of the constitution, it would require two-third's majorities in the House and Senate and then voters' approval in November.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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