90-day session should be longer

Posted: Sunday, February 06, 2011

As any one who has been up to the Capitol in recent weeks knows, the first session of the 27th Alaska Legislature is underway, off and running at break-neck speed. The building that is home to our governor and Legislature is bustling with busy people running from one meeting to another and trying to do as much every day as can be done. While this may at first blush seem like a good thing, it is in someway troubling.

When Alaskans approved the state Constitution and we became a state, no provision was made to limit legislative sessions. The pace of state government became profoundly busier in the 1970s, and annual legislative sessions started to last longer and longer. This logically resulted from the great complexities that came with the discovery of vast amounts of valuable hydrocarbon resources on the North Slope, and the attendant challenges of how best to manage these unprecedented sums of money. Alaska was also just a young state, and laws of all sorts needed to be passed.

After the passage of more than a decade, Alaskans had grown weary of sessions that started in January and dragged mercilessly on to midsummer. By 1984, voters had had enough and amended the Alaska Constitution to limit legislative sessions to no more than 121 days. The vote was more than three-quarters in favor of 121-day limit, a mandate hard to ignore. The statute was updated to reflect this constitutional limit, and this change in the law lasted until four years ago when several legislators put their voices and efforts behind a voter initiative to change the law to limit the biennial sessions to 90 days. This initiative just barely passed by the narrowest of margins, so for the past two legislatures all the people’s business has had to take place in three-fourths of the time previously allotted.

I called to try to get appointments to see several legislators this past week on behalf of the Alaska State Council on the Arts, and was lucky to get in to see some of them promptly. Other legislative offices told me to my disbelief that there was nothing open on the calendar for almost two weeks. Even offices where I was able to get an appointment were frustrated with how super-busy things are, and I’m probably not the only person to get this response. Another example of the problem is the operating budget work of the finance subcommittees which started almost immediately, and where things are so busy not every agency in each department is getting time to explain what it does with the public money it receives. That’s not good public policy.

Fortunately there are is legislation addressing problems deriving from unfortunately short sessions. Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, has introduced the short and simple Senate Bill 18, which strikes a compromise between those who want 90 days and those who want to return to 120 days. SB 18 keeps the shorter time the first year and allows an additional 30 days during the second year of a two-year cycle. SB 18 adds statutory language allowing the Legislature to extend a session one time by 10 additional days in either year, requiring a two-thirds vote of both chambers to do so. This is actually currently in the Constitution but not statute. The change to alternating session lengths would not go into effect until 2013, while the 10-day extension provision would be immediately effective.

While there are those who think it is wrong to undo the will of the voters, the 90-day limit was opposed by almost as many Alaskans as supported it. Moreover, the status quo is not working. Legislators are taking fewer weekend trips home, and improving the efficiency of their work. But no amount of increased efficiency will reduce the stresses on the legislative process that prevent adequate opportunities for Alaskans to participate meaningfully in the process.

There is another piece of legislation that addresses the issue of session length differently. Rep. Carl Gatto’s House Joint Resolution 2 would allow voters to set the alternative session lengths in the state Constitution (in addition to creating a two-year budget process). While HJR 2 allows for 120-day sessions every other year, until and unless the Legislature changes the statute as SB 18 does, the length limit narrowly imposed by the voters would remain in place.

The Legislature needs time to do its work and Alaskans need the opportunity to interact with their legislators and contribute to the legislative process. SB 18 will be heard a second time in the Senate State Affairs Committee this coming Thursday, Feb. 10. It will then move to the Senate Finance Committee where the costs of an additional 30 days of session every other year will rightly be considered. I believe the benefits will easily justify the costs. I hope Juneau residents who want to see the Legislature do its best work will voice their support for the sensible compromise embodied in SB 18.

• Brown is an attorney who lives in Juneau.

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