Longer sessions bill gains traction in House

Move joins Senate's try to go back to 120-day sessions

Posted: Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A state House committee has joined in what has previously been a Senate-led effort to lengthen Alaska’s legislative sessions.

Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla, said the additional time in Juneau is needed so legislators will know government well enough to be able to effectively stand up for their constituents against the executive branch.

“We sometimes find, what I would at least call subjectively, ‘excesses’ of the departments and the divisions,” he said.

There’s also not enough time to study issues and get input from citizens, they said.

“Our constituents, we just don’t’ have enough time for them,” said Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell.

The bill passed by the House State Affairs Committee now goes to the House Finance Committee before it goes to the House floor for a vote.

A survey of House members showed overwhelming support for going back to the constitutionally-mandated 120-day limit, rather than the voter-set 90-day limit. They responded to questions about how thoroughly they were able to review bills prior to adoption, how well they were able to communicate with constituents and other impacts of the shorter sessions.

“The conclusion was it was time to repeal the 90-day session,” said Katie Koester, a legislative staff member who works for Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer.

Seaton was one of three House members to serve on an interim committee reviewing how the 90-day session has worked.

All three joined to introduce House Bill 71, which would repeal the 90-day session.

The shortened sessions were adopted by voters by a vote of 50.8 to 49.2 percent, but laws passed by initiative can be repealed by the Legislature after two years.

The bill’s sponsors took issue with 90-day session advocates’ statements prior to passage of the measure in 2006. They said the facts since then showed that the promised benefits didn’t materialize.

One claim in the voter pamphlet was shorter sessions would result in more candidates running for office.

That’s not what has happened, Koester said, but legislators said they were not sure why substantially fewer people have been running for office.

“Maybe they’re just so pleased with all of us who have been elected that they see no need to run,” joked Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage, chairman of the committee.

Debate on the cost of special sessions continues, with the bill’s backers disputing that shorter sessions resulted in cost savings.

Shane Miller, Finance Manager for the Legislative Affairs Agency said it would likely cost $864,000 to operate the Legislature for 30 additional days, but that there would be no need to increase the budget to account for the additional cost.

When the 90-day sessions were adopted, the budget wasn’t reduced, Miller said. Instead, the extra money was put into an account for expected special sessions.

That turned out to be good budgeting, he said, because there were additional extra sessions in subsequent years.

While the bill had some strong support in the committee, Rep. Pete Peterson, D-Anchorage, said he would find it difficult to vote against a vote of the people.

“They’re the boss,” he said.

While House Bill 71 would repeal the 90-day limit, Senate President Gary Stevens’ bill in that body would keep the first year of a two-year legislative session at 90 days, but would make the second year 120 days. Stevens is a Kodiak Republican.

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

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