Legislature exceeds 90-day session limit

Lawmakers pass lowest number of bills since 1993

Posted: Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Alaska Legislature slipped past the voter-mandated 90-day cap on the legislative session Sunday, continuing to pass bills and take action until the early morning hours of Monday.

That means the legislative session, scheduled to run from Jan. 19 to April 18, did not adjourn in the Senate until 12:36 a.m. on April 19, and 12:37 a.m. in the House.

Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, denied that the Legislature had intentionally violated the 90-day session law that is widely disliked by lawmakers.

"It was not our intention to go past midnight at all," he said.

"It looked at one point we could reach our conclusion by midnight, but it simply did not happen because of moving things back and forth between the House and Senate," Stevens said. "It simply took more time to do the state's business."

The 26th Alaska Legislature, which just concluded its two-year regular session term, passed fewer bills than any legislature in recent years. It passed 180 bills, its lowest since electronic record keeping began in 1993 and far below its annual average of 254 bills.

The previous low had been the 25th Legislature, but that body had only one of its two years fall under the 90-day session cap.

As the Senate passed midnight without adjourning or voting to extend the session, Senate Republican Minority Leader Con Bunde, R-Anchorage, noted the Senate was "for the first time ignoring the 90-day limit."

Stevens acknowledged that, but said lawmakers were not "ignoring the Constitution."

There was no similar objection in the House of Representatives, where Minority Leader Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, is a critic of the 90-day session.

The difference between state law and the Alaska Constitution is at the crux of a legislative dilemma. State law, adopted by voter initiative, calls for a maximum 90-day session. In contrast, the Alaska Constitution calls for a maximum 120-day session.

The initiative itself came from legislators who felt the body didn't need to spend as much time in Juneau, including Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, and Rep. Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks. When they were unable to persuade the Legislature to limit its own sessions, they went to the initiative process to implement it.

Without enough votes to obtain the supermajority needed for a constitutional amendment, Wagoner and Ramras went with a statute change, leaving the law and the Alaska Constitution in conflict on session length.

The initiative passed narrowly, with less than 51 percent of voters in favor, and many lawmakers say they don't expect any voter backlash from ignoring or repealing the 90-day limit.

Stevens said the Legislature has a legal opinion from legislative lawyers saying they can safely disregard the law without jeopardizing any actions they take after midnight.

"It is unlikely that any lawsuit would prevail against us based on what we have done this evening," he said just after adjournment.

The session's main hot-button issues were all passed before the deadline, however.

Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, said the Legislature should go back to 120-day sessions to give bills better consideration.

"It is so exhausting when we have to push everything into 90 days," she said.

Much of the crunch of the final days appeared to be of the Legislature's own doing, however.

Among the bills that the Legislature was unable to approve until the last day of the two-year legislature was selecting the Malamute as the state dog and naming a Petersburg bridge. Criticism also came earlier in the session when much legislative work was suspended so lawmakers could attend an energy conference in Washington, D.C.

Wilson said cutting the session by 30 days resulted in less time to analyze and approve good bills and investigate problems with others.

"If we had an extra 60 days, it would really make a difference over the two years," she said.

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

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