New limits fail to reduce time spent in session

Alaska voters in 2006 narrowly approved 90-day law, while it lost big in Juneau

Posted: Tuesday, August 26, 2008

In the first year in which voters mandated 90-day legislative sessions, the Alaska Legislature has already met for 150 days.

"It doesn't seem like it is working very well, does it," said Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, one of the sponsors of the voter initiative in which the session limits were imposed in 2006. This year was the first year the limits were in effect.

Voters statewide approved the measure 50.8 percent to 49.2 percent, trimming a month from legislative sessions to the current 90 days. Juneau voters were strongly opposed.

Joining Wagoner as co-sponsors were Rep. Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks, and former Sen. Gretchen Guess, D-Anchorage.

Despite the fact it was three legislators who sponsored the measure, top leaders of both the Senate and House of Representatives did not favor the measure, and remain opposed.

This year, despite a shorter regular session, two 30-day special sessions were added, making 2008 one of the lengthiest sessions on record.

Both opponents and defenders of the law are citing the lengthy session in support of their positions.

Critics of the shorter session say that while energy and natural gas pipeline issues were an unusual case that lengthened the session, the 90-day session presents more problems than it does benefits.

"I'm not real happy with it," said Rep. John Coghill, R-North Pole, and chairman of the House Rules Committee, which manages the flow of legislation to the floor.

Coghill thinks limiting regular sessions restricts the amount of analysis that can be done on bills and rushes decision making.

He's not sure whether this is a good year in which to judge the effectiveness of the 90-day session, though, because of the unusual gas pipeline debates.

"With the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act looming over us, I don't know how ordinary a year this would have been," he said. "In more calm conditions, 90 days may work."

So far this year, legislators have spent 150 days in session, but that's still far short of the marathon 188 days in 2006, when legislators spent more than half the year in Juneau debating oil taxes and natural gas pipeline strategies.

This year during the regular session, lawmakers considered but did not approve two bills intended to provide relief from the high cost of energy. Gov. Sarah Palin called legislators back into special session to address that issue.

Ironically, one of those bills was introduced by Wagoner, but he doesn't blame the shorter session for its failure.

"I think it was more who introduced it than anything," he said. Wagoner is a member of the five-person Senate Republican Minority, and said the 15-member majority coalition that elected Senate President Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, was reluctant to pass minority bills.

A significant downside to the shorter sessions, Coghill said, was the loss of time to deliberate on bills.

The Legislature is looking at ways to change how it operates, including the possibility of reducing the number of committees and placing limits on the number of personal bills legislators can introduce.

"I think we're going to have to start changing the way we do business, which is OK with me," he said.

Coghill said he fears the shorter sessions will increase the power of Alaska's already strong governor.

"We ceded a lot of authority to the governor," Coghill said.

The Alaska Constitution sets a maximum of 121 days for legislative sessions but sets no minimum. The measure passed in 2006 was a statutory, not constitutional, change.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgeyat 523-2250 or e-mail

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