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Frustrated lawmakers want longer session

Legislators complain but can't yet repeal voter-mandated limit

Posted: Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Two years have passed since Alaska voters decided the Legislature should complete its business in 90 days, and some lawmakers are saying it's time to go back to the old 120-day schedule mandated by the state Constitution.

"We need to think about going back to 120 days," said Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell.

Wilson took her concerns to the floor of the House of Representatives, and said she feared the shorter sessions were excluding the public from the legislative process.

Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, said the Legislature began work more quickly than in the past, but the shorter sessions also come at the expense of time with constituents.

"We start working right off the bat," he said. "Under the 120-day format we enjoyed more time to interact with constituents."

And under the state Constitution, voter-initiated laws cannot be repealed until two years has passed. Legislative sessions were shortened in the November 2006 election.

Cruise ship wastewater discharge limits imposed by voters the same year also are subject to weakening this year, and a bill already has been introduced to give state regulators some discretion in enforcing a new cruise ship pollution law.

Rep. Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks, is a strong advocate of shorter sessions. When he was unable to convince other legislators to support a 90-day schedule during his first term as a legislator, he turned to the initiative process.

With the help of then-Sen. Gretchen Guess, D-Anchorage, and Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, he convinced 51 percent of the state's voters to impose 90-day sessions on the Legislature.

The Alaska Constitution calls for a 120-day session, but amending the Constitution takes a supermajority vote in the legislature and a vote of the public.

An initiative takes only a signature gathering effort and a simple majority vote of the public, but only creates a statute. After two years the Legislature can then amend or repeal that statute.

Ramras said he went to the voters after legislators rejected shortening sessions 24 times in the previous 15 years. The past two years has shown that it can work, he said, including last year's successful 90-day session.

He acknowledged that many still oppose the shorter sessions.

"I hear a lot of support from individual legislators, and then I hear a lot of grumbling," he said. "I think it goes both ways."

Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, who has served 10 years in the House, said "I think the 90-day session is not conducive to good legislation and public input."

She said the past two years have had multiple special sessions, meaning legislators weren't really held to 90-day sessions anyway.

"I think it hasn't worked well, especially considering that we're always in special session," she said.

It was political deadlocks, not a lack of time that forced some of those sessions, Ramras said. Last year's gas pipeline and energy relief sessions would have happened no matter how long the regular sessions had been, he said.

Kerttula said that while the legislation could now be introduced to extend session length, she's not going to be the one to do it.

"I don't plan on introducing legislation," she said. "We've got too many other issues to address, such as energy and the economy."

Ramras is still convinced 90-day sessions will work.

"With a positive mental attitude, you can get anything done," he said.

Criticism from Wilson and others doesn't mean the state should go back to 120-day sessions, he said.

"I think its OK for folks to vent," he said. "It's what, day 20 of the session? Let's see what happens at day 70."

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 586-4816 or e-mail patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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