My turn: Time to rethink the 90-day session

Posted: Thursday, February 22, 2007

Last December, the offices of several state legislators were searched in an FBI probe looking for evidences of corruption.

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As some of the details were revealed in the news, it became clear that the civil trust had been seriously violated. It also became clear that the people of Alaska wanted decisive action when they elected Gov. Sarah Palin. Her campaign made integrity and disclosure a centerpiece issue, and her clear victory confirmed a mandate for leadership that few could dispute. People wanted more disclosure, accountability, and inclusion.

More disclosure and inclusion makes sense. As a legislator, maintaining the civic trust is one of my most important tasks, and I do my best to hold to that.

One of the ethics bills that I co-sponsored requires legislators to provide more detailed financial disclosures, and prohibits them from receiving outside compensation for work related to legislative or administrative actions. This is a crucial step in opening up state politics.

But, in the rush to come up with ethics legislation quickly, we need to be careful. A bad law that has been passed is a worse scenario than a good law that never passed.

First, we must remember that if we restrict the amount of money that a legislator can make while in office, it could change the nature of our Legislature for the worse. Most if not all legislators have a means of making a living outside of the paycheck they receive from the state. This is mostly out of economic necessity.

If we decide to effectively change the circumstances to remove that necessity, the kind of legislator that is typical now, the citizen legislator would become scarce. And, if we decide to limit the amount of income that a legislator can receive from outside sources, how will a legislator who has a family and is the sole breadwinner, support that familylegislative earnings? Both of these options would not be good for Alaska, because it is important that our civic leaders are chosen from among the general population to maintain our freedoms.

At the same time we called for more disclosure, we as a people voted to shorten the legislative session from 120 days to 90 days. The same spirit that called for more disclosure also called for a leaner and faster working government.

What most don't realize is that these two calls, the call for more disclosure and the call for a leaner, faster working government, will at times contradict each other.

The most obvious example of this contradiction is its effect on public comment and testimony on legislation that is being considered before committees. To comply with the 90-day session, important steps in the political process will either have to be skipped or significantly shortened.

Because the longest part of the process is often the testimony given by the public, committees will inevitably look to shorten the time set aside for it. This does not produce more disclosure and inclusion in government; it restricts it.

As a legislator, I have my doubts about whether a 90-day session is possible. I worry that it will become more difficult for my constituents to voice their concerns in the legislative process, and as a citizen, I believe we should rethink this.

• Rep. Peggy Wilson is a Wrangell Republican.

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