Legislators say short sessions' days numbered

Voter-adopted 90-day limit may only last 2 years

Posted: Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Voter-adopted initiatives can't be changed until two years after passage, and that may mean just two years of 90-day legislative sessions for the Alaska Legislature.

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The 90-day limit adopted by voters last November figured into debate in the final days of this year's Legislature as lawmakers set next year's start date at Jan. 15. Much of the discussion, however, focused on how to shorten the session by 25 percent.

Legislators' statements revealed a reservoir of hostility toward the idea.

Several important issues weren't decided until the final hours of this year's 120-day session.

"The people were sold a bill of goods," said Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, leader of the Senate Republican Minority.

One of the few things Therriault and Senate President Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, may have agreed upon was their skepticism about the shorter session.

Earlier in the year Green had a testy exchange with Rep. Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks, a co-sponsor of the 90-day initiative.

Ramras, testifying before a Senate committee on which Green sat, drew her ire when he told a panel of experienced Senators that he'd done his job by "tipping over the apple cart."

It was their job as seasoned lawmakers to figure out how to adapt to the shorter sessions, he said.

Ramras, who owns a string of Fairbanks eateries and hotels, said 120 days in session were taking him and other "citizen" legislators away from their businesses.

Sen. Gary Wilken, also a Fairbanks Republican, called the shorter terms "selfish," and said they were enacted without any discussion of how they would affect the Legislature's ability to craft effective laws.

The Alaska Constitution calls for a maximum legislative session of no more than 121 days, but it doesn't mention a minimum length.

Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, the Senate majority leader, said he would support the 90-day session because Alaskans voted for it; but "I'm not exactly excited about it," he said.

He didn't mention Ramras by name, but said there was a "selfish element" to the initiative.

"I see people shorten the time for business purposes, and that sort of shocks me," he said.

Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, acknowledged that the vote last year expressed the will of the people; but "I disagree with what they expressed," he said.

Voters statewide adopted the 90-day session limit by a margin of 50.8 percent to 49.2 percent.

In Juneau, the Legislature makes up an important element of the economy, and voters here were solidly opposed, 63 percent to 37 percent, even though there was no organized opposition.

Elton said he'd support the 90-day session because of the statewide vote, but he didn't think it would prove effective.

"I suspect we're going to follow what the people said; there's going to be a demonstration that it doesn't work, and there will be a default to the constitution," he said

"I think it's just fear of change," Ramras said. "If this does not work I'll be the first one to say we should go back to a 121-day session."

Therriault agreed with Elton, and said the Legislature may be back to 121 days in two years.

Therriault said he was gratified that people apparently did not buy what he called "outlandish, just outlandish," claims by the short-session advocates.

"I was so pleased that when this went to a vote of the people it passed by such a slim margin," he said.

"I thought this thing would be 80 percent. Who doesn't like less government?" he said.

The session beginning Jan. 15, 2008, will be the first of two that must end within 90 days.

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

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