Earlier session makes sense for Alaskans

Posted: Sunday, April 29, 2007

For many, summers in Alaska are about making money.

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The multimillion-dollar tourism and commercial fishing industries, which flourish in the summertime, are two big reasons legislators need to get to work sooner rather than later.

Legislators are debating when to launch their newly shortened session. Starting in 2008, lawmakers will be in Juneau for 90 days rather than the previous 120.

On Friday, the Senate approved a session start date of the second Monday in February. The amended legislation, House Bill 171, still needs approval from the House or a joint conference committee.

Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, offered an amendment to reinstate the second Monday as the session's start date. Legislators would be wise to reverse their latest decision and listen to Wagoner.

Launching the session in January and wrapping it up in April makes far more sense than a February-May cycle because it allows people to switch gears to summer livelihoods if they need to.

A session that meshes with Alaska's seasonal occupations can only broaden the pool of legislative candidates and staffers.

And it's far easier for those in the fishing, tourism and construction industries to follow critical legislation and weigh in on it if legislative hearings aren't competing with preparations for their work seasons.

An earlier session works better too for school districts, which have faced enough budget uncertainty under the old schedule. They're already handicapped by having to wait and see how much money they're getting from the state. The last thing they need is another month of uncertainty.

Talk of teacher layoffs is a rite of spring for too many districts. In Juneau, for instance, the city charter requires the district to present its budget by the end of March, even though it doesn't know how much money the Alaska Legislature will choose to give schools.

Each year, the district discusses pink slips, hoping the Legislature will come through with funding that prevents layoffs.

Completing the legislative session earlier would let educators know sooner whether their budgets will be funded - and whether teachers will have jobs in the fall.

A major argument for starting the session in February instead of January is to prevent delays caused by stormy weather as lawmakers fly in and out of Juneau.

Those delays, however, usually amount to only a day or two of inconvenience.

It's the same inconvenience all Alaskans deal with every winter. If legislators can't handle the same weather as the rest of us, how is it that they qualify to make our laws?

Yes, getting to work can be a nuisance. So is staying on the job until the work's done. That's how it is for a lot of workers whose jobs take them away from home - fishermen, tour guides, state ferry employees, oil field workers, biologists in the field. Yet a lot of legislators fly home on weekends.

If your job schedule was four months on and eight months off, would you expect your boss to let you go home every weekend during the work period? How many three-day weekends do you think the company would allow?

If legislators don't like getting stuck in airports, they can avoid airports.

There's no good reason lawmakers shouldn't plan their four-month work year to benefit the people who elected them. A mid-January start date for the Legislature is the only way to go in a state where so many look to the summer to earn their livelihoods.

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