Lawmakers attempt to trim session

Reps seek two-year budgets

Posted: Tuesday, March 27, 2001

A group of freshman and sophomore representatives is investigating whether legislative sessions and state budgeting can be reformed through regular laws, rather than constitutional amendments.

But the lawmakers are still looking hard at 90-day and 60-day sessions and a biennial state budget, which they believe would result in a more efficient legislative process.

A House State Affairs subcommittee this morning discussed four proposed constitutional amendments.

All of them would shorten the period in which the Legislature is in session. One, authored by Anchorage Republican Rep. Lisa Murkowski, also would call for the state budget to be set on a two-year cycle.

While House Majority Leader Jeannette James, a North Pole Republican, sat in for part of the discussion, the seven lawmakers who participated throughout the two-hour hearing all have been elected since 1998.

"I think the risk is, the longer you're here, the more comfortable you get with the status quo," said Rep. Andrew Halcro, an Anchorage Republican who is in his second term.

Proposed amendments by Halcro, Anchorage Republican Norm Rokeberg and Soldotna Republican Ken Lancaster would establish 90-day sessions every year. Now the annual regular session is limited by the constitution to 121 days.

Halcro's amendment also calls for legislators to begin their terms in December, rather than January, allowing a month of preparatory work in their districts before the Legislature convenes. He also would allow interim meetings of committees.

Murkowski would limit sessions in even-numbered years to 60 days, although she said she's not firm on the length. The heart of a her proposal is setting a two-year budget during odd-numbered years, when sessions would remain 120 days.

The premise is that legislators don't really need all the time they take to do their business.

"There's a lot of stirring around and not a lot of motion forward in that first month," Murkowski said.

In discussion, the sponsors of the legislation and subcommittee members gained "a different awareness" about alternatives to constitutional amendments, said subcommittee chairman Hugh Fate, a Fairbanks Republican.

Legislative staffer Tam Cook said that in going to a biennial budget, "you can get 95 percent of the way there" without amending the constitution. The constitution prohibits the appropriation of revenues not yet received, Cook said. So the Legislature could do all of the calculations necessary for a two-year budget but could not officially adopt the second half of it until the next regular session, she said.

A statutory limit on session length would have little if any legal force, Cook said. If lawmakers acted on bills after the statutory deadline, the courts probably would reject any challenges to the validity of the new laws on the grounds that the Legislature "by implication" had suspended the deadline, she said.

But she didn't rule out a statutory deadline as an effective political tool for self-discipline.

James, the majority leader, said she thinks that putting a long-range fiscal plan in place is necessary before doing any of the other structural reforms, although she said a biennial budget is "a super idea."

"We should never take up a constitutional amendment lightly," Murkowski said. But she said the biennial budget could go "hand in hand" with a long-range fiscal plan and could be implemented gradually. Halcro said support for new taxes in a long-range plan could be gained by showing the public "we're willing to change the way we do business now."

Murkowski broached the idea of selecting an agency - say, the state Department of Education and Early Development - and trying to draft a biennial budget "just to see how possible it is to do this before we move forward with a constitutional amendment."

Bill McAllister can be reached at billm@juneauempire.com.



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