Senate passes February start for Legislature

Lawmakers reject attempt to meet outside Juneau

Posted: Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Alaska Senate Friday passed a package of regulations implementing a 90-day Legislative session, including a controversial change to convene in mid-February.

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Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, meanwhile, led successful opposition to a change that would have made it easier for the Legislature to meet outside the capital.

Voters in November passed a law telling the Legislature to meet for only 90 days, down from the constitutionally mandated maximum of 120 days. No dates were set, however.

The Senate State Affairs Committee earlier decided to start meeting in mid-February, instead of the current mid-January.

When the bill implementing the 90-day session reached the Senate floor Friday, Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, tried to restore the January start date.

Wagoner, one of the sponsors of the initiative, said he would have included a January beginning in the initiative language, "if ever in my wildest dreams I thought we'd move the start date" to February.

Some Juneau landlords have expressed a desire for the session to start earlier and end earlier, freeing up housing occupied by legislators, lobbyists and staff for tourist industry workers.

The city of Juneau had no official position on the issue, said Clark Gruening, the city's lobbyist.

"That's a decision best left in the hands of the Legislature," he said.

Wagoner said having the session later in the year would make it harder for Alaskans who work in seasonal occupations such as fishing, tourism, construction and greenhouse businesses to either lobby or serve in their Legislature.

"These people have a very hard time running their businesses and thinking about serving in a citizens' Legislature," he said. "And this is a citizens' Legislature."

Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, said that if Wagoner wanted a specific start date, he should have put it into the initiative.

The Legislature needs the spring revenue forecast to help with budgeting decisions, she said, and final budgets can't be adopted until those numbers are known.

"Coming down here in January isn't going to get us any closer to that," said McGuire, who chairs the State Affairs Committee.

An amendment to the 90-day session bill, HB171, which would have taken the start date back to the second Monday in January, failed 11-8, leaving the start date as the second Monday in February.

The Senate also rebuffed an attempt at allowing the Legislature to meet outside Juneau at the call of the Legislative Council. The 15-member council is made up of senators and representatives who handle the administrative business of the Legislature.

Elton urged a "no" vote. He said the argument should have been settled in one of the many committees that dealt with the bill rather than on the floor at the last minute.

"This is making a very substantive policy call without involving the public," he said.

The amendment failed on an 18-2 vote.

"Obviously cooler heads prevailed," said Win Gruening, chairman of the Alaska Committee, a Juneau organization formed to protect the capital.

"I'm glad it didn't get any further than that," he said.

HB171 now goes back to the House to see if it agrees with the Senate's changes. If the House doesn't agree, a conference committee will be appointed to work out the differences.

• Pat Forgey can be reached at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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