Alaska editorial: Alaskans made poor decision with 90-day legislative limit

Posted: Friday, June 01, 2007

The Alaska Legislature's 2008 session will be the first held under the 90-day limit mandated by voter initiative, but lawmakers aren't waiting until January to grumble.

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"The people were sold a bill of goods," says Sen. Gene Therriault, a North Pole Republican.

Legislators routinely trot out the "bill of goods" argument when the voters approve measures unpopular in the Capitol, but very little homework is required to prove Sen. Therriault is right.

Cheaper, more efficient, more responsive government and attracting a better class of person to run for the Legislature - that was the sales pitch.

In reality, the Legislature will save money (and not that much) only if it doesn't hold more special sessions. And it's unclear why lawmakers would be more efficient or more responsive by having hurry forced upon them - or why the caliber of lawmaker would suddenly improve.

The Daily News took this position before the election, but the voters disagreed. What did legislators with doubts say?

Apparently unwilling to rile their constituents, they were nearly silent. They conceded the debate to advocates of the measure. It's telling that the authors of the election-pamphlet statement opposing the 90-day session were all former legislators who had no skin in the game.

The Alaska Constitution says a law enacted by initiative may be repealed two years after its effective date. So Sen. Thierriault and his colleagues could return to the 121-day session in 2010 - if they can withstand the heat from those who pushed the shorter session limit. Presumably the Legislature will have less reason to sweat if lawmakers can demonstrate that rushing to finish in only 90 days causes obvious problems.

There is something else important to remember about the session limit: the Alaska Constitution. It says, "The Legislature shall adjourn from regular session no later than 120 consecutive days from the date it convenes."

The initiative does not supersede the constitution's 121-day limit. If lawmakers were to flout the initiative's 90-day limit, they still would comply with the constitution.

That's because the initiative - like Alaska's open-meeting law - is essentially unenforceable. The constitutional separation of powers prevents one branch of government - the courts - from forcing another, equal branch of government - the Legislature - to obey the laws it passes. Alaska courts intervene only if the Legislature is violating the constitution.

But we're not here to advocate disrespect for the law. We're here to say the voters made a poor decision when they passed the 90-day-session initiative. Yes, legislators will spend less time, and a little less money, at work - but there's little reason to hope the change will produce better decisions for Alaskans.

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