The Senate Rules Committee has decided to quit meeting regularly to schedule bills, turning that power over to the chairman, Sen. John Cowdery, an Anchorage Republican.
Senate Democrats are outraged, saying majority Republicans are doing the public's business behind closed doors.
Cowdery said the change will save time without shortchanging the public process. The Rules Committee already functions that way in the House, he said.
The Senate Rules Committee in the past met regularly to vote on scheduling bills for a floor vote but the committee rarely took testimony or made changes in bills. Democrats always were outvoted if Republicans wanted to schedule a bill.
Minority Leader Johnny Ellis, an Anchorage Democrat, acknowledged the committee did little substantive work. He said the requirement that bills go through the committee effectively gave the public - and minority Democrats - 24 hours notice that bills were headed to the Senate floor.
"A very important part of the public process has been stripped away today," Ellis said. "We've essentially been kicked off the committee and the door has been shut to the public."
The change was approved on a 3-2 party-line vote, with Republican Sens. Cowdery, Ben Stevens of Anchorage and Senate President Gene Therriault of North Pole voting yes. Ellis and fellow Democrat Sen. Gretchen Guess of Anchorage voted no.
Cowdery said the Rules Committee still will meet if a bill needs work, "but to schedule bills, it's just kind of a waste of time." The public has ample opportunity to testify on bills in other committees, he said.
Bills almost never make it to either the House or Senate floor unless the leadership knows enough votes are lined up to pass the legislation.
Cowdery said sponsors of legislation sometimes are asked to give the Rules Committee chairman "chit sheets," showing a majority of legislators have signed on to support a bill. Those commitments often are made in one-on-one discussions among legislators.
Cowdery said he would continue to require "chit sheets" at times before scheduling a bill.
"If you don't have 11 votes, I'm going to be hard pressed to put it on the floor," Cowdery said. "It's a waste of time."
Cowdery said notice of upcoming bills would still appear on the Senate calendar, which usually comes out by 5 p.m. the day before the next day's 11 a.m. session.
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