Lawmakers differ on Alaska's 90-day session

Some concerned state may now have weaker legislative branch

Posted: Tuesday, January 27, 2009

FAIRBANKS - A more efficient government, or reduced legislative power?

Those are two views of lawmakers as the Alaska Legislature enters its second year of a shorter session.

Residents in 2006 voted to shrink the 121-day session to 90 days in a move to limit the size of government and encourage efficiency. But Rep. John Coghill, R-North Pole, said he was concerned voters instead are getting a weaker legislative branch, more bureaucracy and rushed decisions.

Coghill, who is chairman of the House Rules Committee, also leads a Legislative Council subcommittee with a mission to study the effects of the shorter session and offer recommendations in 2010.

But Rep. Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks, believes the 90-day sessions are driving greater efficiency and professionalism in the Alaska legislature.

The 120-day sessions resembled a "frat party" for the first 30 days, he said. Now, there's a more business-like tone in Juneau.

"I'm delighted with the outcome of a 90-day session," Ramras told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. "We feel like we're going down there and everybody's going right to work ... We have created a more efficient legislature where we put more of a premium on the value of time."

He sponsored the 2006 initiative. The 2008 Legislature was the first to fall under the 90-day limit.

Coghill says the 90-day session spawned three central concerns - management issues, less legislative oversight of the executive branch and fewer opportunities for the public to be heard.

Management issues include how bills move through committees, how much time legal staff has to craft amendments and redraft bills and how many days notice people get when legislators plan to debate.

Coghill also said state employees who work only 90 days a year are not eligible for retirement benefits and may have to work several years to earn an annual pay step increase.

Lawmakers agreed in 2008 that staffers could work 100 days, alleviating the retirement and raise concerns.

"Is that still enough to encourage people to work in a professional capacity in the Legislature," he asked.

"It just doesn't look as appealing as it did when it was a 120-day session," said Rep. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks.

Ramras countered that people who agree to work a 90-day stint shouldn't be getting a full year's worth of benefits, the same scenario as private business, like the hotel he owns in Fairbanks.

"We're supposed to be stewards for the state's resources," he said. "It's like me hiring seasonal people for the hotel, and worrying about what they do for the rest of the year."

Coghill also is concerned about the balance of power between the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government. He believes the shorter session cuts into the legislature's ability to thoroughly make the checks and balances of the other branches.

"Whatever the business is before you, you want to allow your legislature ample opportunity to discover what the administration is doing," he said. "Did you really get less government, or are you just turning over authority to the bureaucrats ... It's kind of like the hens being guarded by the foxes."

Coghill also said with shorter sessions, the public has less access to the legislative process.

"When you have less time, you have either quicker decisions or less informed decisions, and it is a taxation on the free flow of ideas in our country," Coghill said. "At the fundamental level, we have hurt people."

Kawasaki helped Ramras collect signatures for the shorter session initiative several years ago, before his first run for office. Now that he's in office, the idea hasn't worked so well in practice.

"After being down here for four special sessions in two years and seeing the volume of work that actually goes into running the state properly, I've sort of changed my mind about it," he said. "We've just got to do things faster; and faster means you miss things."

Veteran lawmaker Rep. Max Gruenberg, D-Anchorage, is also concerned about how the shorter session may affect the power of the legislative branch.

"To go down from 120 to 90 days will have a terrific effect on the way the legislative game is played," he said. "Among other things, (it) will lead to more special sessions. The person who controls the special sessions and the subject matter will control the focus of the legislature."

Gruenberg, who also is a member of the subcommittee studying the 90-day sessions, said more business already is being conducted out-of-session, without public input, because of the 90-day limit.

Ramras said lawmakers are showing "poor sportsmanship" by complaining about the 90-day sessions only days into the second year.

"You've got some of these people whining that it can't be done," he said. "They're people who never read 'The Little Engine that Could' when they were kids."

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