Alaska editorial: How long for good law?

Posted: Friday, February 05, 2010

S ome lawmakers want to go back to the 120-day legislative session, repealing the voters' 2006 order to cut to 90 days. They make a rational case. Another month would give them more time to master complex issues, talk with constituents, vet budget requests and proposals for new laws. And they could do it with more sleep.

But they weaken their own case with the way the Legislature works, particularly in the last days of the session.

Horse-trading is the rule of the day. Bills are held in committees after hearings or not heard at all until some committee chair gets what she wants from some other committee chair or the bills' sponsors. Or some budget item that a subcommittee struck gets restored. Or deleted. Or until a chairman in the "other body" relents on an amendment a House chair demands.

Lawmakers get by on scant sleep. Tempers flare. Finance committees grind through midnights and weekends. Floor sessions run on fumes at 3 a.m., frequently punctuated by recesses because punchy lawmakers are trying to figure out what they're doing. Lobbyists, those saints, may be caught napping in legislators' offices.

It's not necessary. It's the politics of attrition. Those in positions of power - caucus leaders and committee chairs - hold their best cards close until they need to play them.

Here's the point: The session is likely to end this way whether lawmakers go 90 days or 120 or 240. Some good work gets done in this blur of days and nights but transparency is forgotten and reason strained. Lawmakers make decisions and deals at the last minute in an insiders' game that leaves most Alaskans in the dark.

It's a bad way to do the people's business.

And the impression it gives - no matter how hard some of our lawmakers work - is that our elected reps mess around for the first three-fourths of the session, then really get down to business. That's why the 90-day session passed in 2006.

The Legislature's only constitutional obligation is to pass a budget. What if, for example, legislators accomplished that and other business in 60 or 70 days this year, and cleared the decks for undistracted focus on the state's oil-tax law at the end of the session?

The 90-day limit isn't a lock. The governor can call the Legislature into special session, and so can lawmakers themselves.

But before our legislators demand 30 more days for keeps, they should promise the voters their work won't boil down in exhaustion to the last three days.

Need more time to learn and legislate? Take it - on the condition that the people's business isn't finished in a sleep-deprived poker game in the last hours.

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