It is with a great sense of a renewed opportunity to make a difference for the people of the state that the 25th Alaska Legislature embarks on its first session. We have a new governor and many new members in the House and Senate, all of who are energized to roll up their collective sleeves and begin working on a multitude of issues.
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We in the House majority are looking forward to developing a good working relationship with our Democratic minority, the new governor and with our colleagues in the Senate.
We have set a goal to try to finish our business in 90 days, in keeping with the initiative passed in November that will take effect in 2008. Because the flow of legislation is governed by various statutes and uniform rules, there may be a significant number of "tweaking" changes required to fit legislative procedure into the new 90-day requirement.
The operating and capital budget process will likely be the first place where changes will have to be made to fit the work into 90 days. Budget subcommittees will have to condense their schedule; the governor's 45-day limit for submitting budget amendments will likely have to be reduced; the time frame in which municipalities must provide back-up material for capital requests will have to be revised; and so forth.
While some detractors will be unenthusiastic about our goal to meet the 90-day limit a year ahead of what's required, we believe anything we learn this year will pay dividends next year.
Even without a 90-day session limit, the budgets present formidable challenges for lawmakers this year. Gov. Palin has expressed a desire to reduce the operating budget by $150 million, yet, the two biggest components of the operating budget are education and health care. Finding $150 million in cuts, without eliminating programs, will be difficult, but we will work with the governor's staff to find them.
We are especially interested in addressing the issue of ethics. The spectacle of legislators and their offices being investigated by the FBI, coupled with numerous scandals at the national level, have eroded the public's faith and confidence in their elected officials.
It is clear that there are gray areas and loopholes that need to be addressed.
In my view, ethics reform starts with full and open disclosure. The public needs to know for whom their elected official is working or consulting, and be able to know generally but clearly what the elected official is doing for the pay. It is not necessary to provide such a comprehensive report that it gets bogged down in minute details, but it should require enough information that the public can make an informed decision.
Fundamentally, this debate is about remuneration, that is, who pays legislators and for what work do they pay them? The people of Alaska pay legislators to represent them in Juneau, to work diligently to equitably resolve public issues. Voters should know who else is paying them, for what, and then make up their own minds as to whether they want to retain them in the Legislature.
So, one of the significant issues that will be looked at is whether Alaska's legislators should be made full-time or continue as part-time lawmakers. Currently, as part-time, "citizen" lawmakers, who earn $24,000 annually as members of the Alaska House and Senate, they must provide for themselves and their families in some other way. Most legislators have full-time jobs they have to give up for the four-plus months they are in session in Juneau. If ethics reform included a complete ban on earning any income other than from legislative duties, very quickly only those who are independently wealthy or retired could afford to serve in the Legislature.
These, of course, are just the biggest of the challenges facing lawmakers in 2007. We believe we are capable of meeting the challenges, and will do so in a way that will restore confidence in Alaska's elected officials.
John Harris, R-Valdez, is the speaker of the state House.