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Is 90 days enough?

Posted: Sunday, March 02, 2008

Halfway through the first voter-mandated 90-day legislative session, lawmakers say the shortened sessions are doing what both supporters and critics promised.

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The few proponents of the measure in the Capitol say things are moving quickly and efficiently, and what's been left out is the unimportant bills from previous years.

Those who didn't like the bill say the public is being left out of the process and getting fewer chances to learn about and comment on proposed legislation.

One thing is for certain, fewer bills have been introduced in this session than any since 1993, down almost 20 percent from the 10-year average. But the drop may be even sharper than it appears because the 25th Alaska Legislature spans two years. The first year of the session was under the 121-day limit and only this year has fallen under the 90 day-limit.

"I think it's going great," said Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks, one of those who developed the initiative that led to the shortened sessions.

Ramras said those bills not being introduced would probably not have merited serious consideration anyway.

Despite the Legislature's rush to complete its work on time, a House committee still found time for a hearing on a bill requiring the state to purchase flags made only in the United States.

The bill is likely unconstitutional, the House State Affairs Committee was told. And it won't accomplish anything: State procurement officials said they already buy American-made flags.

Though the 90-day session is widely unpopular among legislators, legislative leaders say they'll meet the new deadline, even though they don't like it.

"We'll be out of here in 90 days, no problem," said House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez.

Last year Harris and other legislative leaders said they were going to meet the 90-day statutory deadline even before it was required, but wound up barely meeting the constitutional 121-day maximum.

To meet the deadline, legislative leaders say, it's taken significant changes to allow them to work more efficiently.

They've begun working into the weekends early in the session and running meetings into the evening. The House and Senate Finance Committees took the unusual step of meeting jointly to allow the governor to present her budget quickly and allow work to start rapidly.

It hasn't always been easy.

An exasperated Sen. President Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, told senators recently "this can't continue" after numerous lawmakers requested time off.

Former Senate President Clem Tillion of Halibut Cove said he took a tougher stand with requests for absences when he was Senate president in 1979 and 1980.

He discouraged requests for time off by scheduling legislators' favorite bills when they were gone, so they'd fail, he said.

"I'd say fine, but then I'd put their bill on the calendar. They lost their legislation," he said.

Tillion said they didn't have any trouble finishing in 90 days.

Green said things are on track for completion in 90 days, and legislators are "getting here earlier and staying later."

One cut that was made to the process: The Alaska Permanent Fund Corp.'s annual presentation to the legislative finance committees was canceled.

"They don't want to hear from us," said Steve Frank, chairman of the corporation's Board of Trustees.

Fund Executive Director Mike Burns attributed the cancellation to the 90-day session.

Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, a Finance Committee member, said they are able to contact those who manage the $38 billion permanent fund if they need information, and the presentation was not necessary.

And Sen. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, Green's rival as Senate minority leader, called some of the weekend meetings little more than stunts.

A Saturday Senate Resources Committee meeting, he said, ran only half a day. Administration members scheduled to testify flew back to Anchorage, and then returned for a few more hours Monday to complete their testimony.

Many members say they'll take only a single trip back to their districts to meet with their constituents, because of the 90-day session.

Senate Rules Committee Chairman Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, contacted at home in Kodiak where he was attending one of those meetings, said the short session risked excluding the public.

"We're losing a quarter of our time, and that's time in which we could hear from constituents," he said.

Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, is a strong supporter of the 90-day session. He said he and other legislators are making time to meet with people from home despite the short session, but that he'd heard that some constituents have been turned away from their elected representatives offices and blamed it on the 90-day session.

As Rules Committee chairman, Stevens decides which bills make it to the floor, and which don't. He said the time crunch means a lot of good bills will simply die in committee. The really good ones will get reintroduced next year, he said.

And the opposition to the 90-day session isn't unanimous.

"Personally, I like the 90-day session," said Rep. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage. "I like the more accelerated pace."

Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, and House Minority Leader, disputed that.

"I didn't vote for it, I don't like it and I don't think it's working well," she said.

She said the concerns about excluding the public have been proven out.

"I think the public is having a tremendously difficult time trying to follow anything," she said.

To speed the process, bills have had fewer committee referrals, and sometimes passed out of committee with work still to be done. In some cases, that's led the Rules Committee, which usually simply schedules bills for the floor, instead reworking bills there. That has the effect of adding another committee referral.

Wagoner said it is not that a 90-day session can't work, but that some legislators aren't trying to make it work. Wagoner is a member of the Senate Republican Minority.

"I don't see a lot of energy being put into make sure it does work in 90 days," he said.

Senate Majority Leader Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, said it will work.

"We're all going to work together to make this work because the public expects it," he said.

Ramras, the Legislature's most prominent 90-day session supporter, has sometimes strained relations with other members. Last year, he told senior lawmakers that his initiative helped "tip over the apple cart," and it was now their job to find a way to make the apples fit more efficiently back in the cart.

This year, he said the success of the first 90-day session is proving him right.

"I think it is a noble experiment," Ramras said. "I think we're going to demonstrate structurally it can be done and then it will remain a policy decision for the Legislature."

• Contact reporterPat Forgey at 586-4816 or patrick.forgey@juenauempire.com.



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