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Sessions' cost, honesty of estimates, debated in Capitol

Claim that longer sessions will not increase budget faces criticism

Posted: Sunday, January 30, 2011

Advocates of longer legislative sessions are facing bipartisan criticism of their claim that extending legislators’ time in Juneau by 30 days would not have any budgetary impact.

Senate President Gary Stevens has introduced a bill to go from the current 90-day session to a 120-day session in the second year of a two-year legislative term. Other proposals would have the state going to 120 days in both years or only in the first years.

What’s raising eyebrows is the “fiscal note,” the official estimate of a bill’s cost, that’s attached to Stevens’ Senate Bill 18. The fiscal note said there would be no need to add money the budget to cover the cost of the extra time.

“I found it a little insulting,” said Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak.

Stoltze supports the 90-day session limit, but his position on fiscal note honesty was endorsed by Rep. Max Gruenberg, D-Anchorage, who has introduced a bill to repeal the voter-approved 90-day sessions and go back to 120 days. Stoltze’s comments came on the House floor Friday.

Sometimes fiscal notes are bigger or smaller than they really should be in an effort to make legislation more or less likely to pass, Gruenberg said.

“It seems that fiscal notes sometimes reflect more political criticism,” he said.

Legislators should carefully examine whether the notes are both objective and accurate, he said. The legislature might even want to change the fiscal note rules to clarify the need for objectivity, he said.

The fiscal note might be being misinterpreted, said Carolyn Kuckertz, press secretary for the Stevens-led Senate Bipartisan Working Group

The fiscal note “does not say there won’t be any cost, instead, it says that the costs can be absorbed within the existing budget,” she said.

When Stevens testified in support of his bill Thursday before the Senate’s State Affairs Committee, he said the shorter sessions didn’t save the state any money.

“The rationale was to save money, but it hasn’t saved money,” Stevens said.

Stevens aide Tim Lamkin said Friday what he meant was that it didn’t reduce the budget. That’s because any money saved by the shorter sessions was set aside in an account for future special session expenses and did not reduce the budget. Increasing session lengths thus will not require a special appropriation to cover the cost, he said.

Lamkin acknowledged there would likely be a direct cost of about $800,000, covering legislative per diem, legislative staff pay, printing and the numerous other costs of holding a legislative session,

“There’s fees to the chaplains who give the prayers, it all adds up to six figures, he said.

However, that’s not the final cost, he said.

Shorter regular sessions mean more interim committee meetings, often at expensive-to-reach locations around the state. That eats into and likely eliminates any savings, Lamkin said.

“It’s a wash,” he said, maintaining Stevens was right to say there were no savings to shorter sessions.

Stoltze, an opponent of longer sessions, didn’t like blaming travel to rural areas.

“I frankly don’t have any apologies for that,” he said.

He said he took those comments about cost as a criticism of the Legislature reaching out to rural areas.

“Taking government to the people is something the Legislature should be doing more of,” he said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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