Sunday, January 14, 2007

A Brief Tutorial On How The Alaska State Legislature Works

On January 14th, 2007, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner published an excellent overview on the basic organization of the Alaska State Legislature and its primary functions (link may be dead). They also described the typical legislative process itself, using a bill introduced by District 10 Representative Jay Ramras (R-Fairbanks) as an example. This post will be of interest to non-Alaskan political junkies, as well as Alaskans who are a bit deficient in their understanding of this process. I incorporate some personal observations into this article. Photo courtesy of

Organization of the Alaska State Legislature

The Alaska State Legislature consists of two bodies — the Senate and the House of Representatives. There are 20 Senators and 40 Representatives from all over the state. Senators serve four-year terms and Representatives serve two-year terms. There are 40 House districts, and they’re broken up by population, so each Representative serves approximately 15,000 constituents. Each of the 20 Senate districts is made up of two House districts, and everyone in Alaska has one Representative and one Senator. Because the districts are determined by population, Fairbanks has multiple representatives, while a huge chunk of the Interior has just one. Anchorage, with half the state's population, has half the state's lawmakers.

The Legislature meets in the capital every year for a regular session and sometimes for special sessions to deal with specific, timely issues. The length of a regular session was 120 days, but Alaska voters approved a ballot measure in November 2006 shortening the length to 90 days. The change is not required to be implemented until the 2008 session. There can be as many special sessions as necessary; either the Governor or the Legislative leadership can call a special session. Last year, there were three separate special sessions; first, for the natural gas pipeline, second, for the oil production tax, and last, for same-sex benefits.

Functions of the Alaska State Legislature

The Legislature has two main responsibilities — making laws and deciding how to spend the state’s money. Here’s a view of the lawmaking process from 30,000 feet.

The Alaska Constitution is the supreme law for the state. The Legislature can amend the constitution with a public vote — as can members of a constitutional convention — but short of that, it can’t make laws that would violate the constitution. For example, legislators can’t unilaterally extend their terms to 20 years. The Alaska Supreme Court has the final say on whether an existing law is unconstitutional.

The Legislature can pass laws on anything from identity theft to public school dress codes, and as long as the bills are introduced by a legislator, the ideas for laws can come from the Governor, a special interest group, or any member of the public.

The Governor has the power to stop a bill from becoming law by vetoing it after the Legislature passes it. The Legislature can override the veto, but only if there’s enough support. The Governor and her Administration, who oversee all the state agencies, write the regulations that carry out the laws.

The public can also make laws through the ballot initiative process. By gathering enough signatures, supporters can get an initiative on the ballot during an election, and if the initiative passes, it becomes law. The governor can’t veto ballot initiatives.

Sometimes even lawmakers use the initiative process. During his first year, Ramras noticed a bill to shorten the legislative session from 120 days to 90 days. It caught his interest, and when he did some research, he found that legislators had proposed to shorten the session 24 times and failed every time. The bill died, but Ramras liked the idea and thought a majority of Alaskans would, too, so he used the initiative process, and voters approved the change last year.

Voters also changed campaign finance laws and created a cruise ship tax. The Legislature and Governor both have a say when it comes to state spending. The governor comes up with a plan, but the Legislature gets to review it and make changes to it.

Every year, there’s an operating budget to cover the cost of state government and all its departments and a capital budget to cover infrastructure like roads, bridges, and buildings. This is where the finance committees in the House and Senate become so important; they do the bulk of the work of reviewing the budgets. In addition, the Legislature also played a major role in reviewing former Gov. Frank Murkowski’s gas pipeline proposal last year.

Wine and the Politics - A Typical Bill

A while back, someone was drinking wine with a meal at Pike’s Landing. At the end of the meal, there was still some wine in the bottle, so the person asked Ramras, “Why can’t I take this bottle of wine with me?”

According to state law, one cannot legally drive with an open container of alcohol in the vehicle, but Ramras agreed that diners should be able to take an unfinished bottle home with them. So last year, Ramras introduced a bill to change the law and make it OK to take the wine if it was recorked or somehow resealed. Because Ramras is a Representative, he introduced his bill in the House of Representatives.

A bill must pass both the House and Senate to become a law, but it can start out in either body, and sometimes it’s introduced in both by different legislators. When a bill is introduced, it’s up to the leader of the House (the Speaker) or the Senate (the President) to decide which committee or committees should review it. Lawmakers almost always seek "co-sponsors" for their bills, particularly co-sponsors from the majority party, in order to "muscle" it up for a particular committee. In general, the more co-sponsors attached to a bill, the more likely a committee will act upon it favorably and expeditiously.

A committee can do a few different things with a bill. It can hold hearings on it, change it, or pass it on to the next committee or the body as a whole. Or it can just sit on it, in which case the bill dies.

When Ramras introduced his bill, the speaker referred it to a special committee on economic development and the Labor and Commerce Committee. That was in January. The bill made it through the special committee — Ramras was a co-chair — and went on to the labor committee, which held a hearing in mid-February.

Ramras went to testify. He said the bill would make roads safer, keep business strong and not cost the state a penny. You can take home whatever you don’t eat in a doggy bag, he noted, but you can’t take home leftover wine. And that means people tend to finish off the bottle, which raises their blood alcohol levels.

Legislators on the committee asked whether you could “recork” a screw-top bottle, whether the bill should include liquor, and whether a restaurant trade group supported the bill. Once their questions were answered, they passed it out of the committee.

Sometimes the success of a bill depends on whether the sponsor is in the party with the most Senators or House members — the majority. Majority members elect the House Speaker or Senate President, chair the committees, and get the most seats on the committees. As mentioned earlier, minority legislators seek out majority members to co-sponsor bills to improve the bills’ chances of success.

Ramras is a Republican, and Republicans controlled the House last year. Before a bill gets to the House or Senate floor for a vote, it has a final hurdle in the Rules Committee, which decides when bills are considered on the floor. If the rules committee doesn’t like a bill, the bill may never be scheduled to make it to the floor. Ramras’ bill did.

When it came time to vote, Ramras and three others excused themselves from voting because they all had potential conflicts of interest — Pike’s Landing might have benefited from the new law. But other lawmakers allowed them to vote, and they did. The bill passed almost unanimously. It was transferred to the Senate and assigned to the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee on March 1st (2006).

There it sat — for two months.

Eventually, the Labor Committee passed it on, but by the time it got to the Senate Finance Committee, there was about a week left in the session. The bill never left the committee, so the Senate never voted on it, and the Governor never got a chance to weigh in. “It ran out of time and it ran into politics,” Ramras said. “There’s the politics of time. There’s the politics of personality. There’s the politics of the two bodies.”

This year, he introduced the bill again. Here's the text of the bill:



* Section 1. AS 04.16.120 is amended by adding a new subsection to read:

(c) Notwithstanding (a) of this section, a person may remove from licensed premises the unconsumed portion of a bottle of wine that was partially consumed with a meal if (1) the original or a similar type of cork is reinserted in the bottle by the licensee and the cork can only be removed by a corkscrew or other similar device, or (2) the bottle is sealed or packaged by the licensee in a manner set by the board. Notwithstanding another provision of law, a bottle of wine that is recorked, sealed, or packaged as provided in this subsection is not an open container if the cork reinserted by the licensee or the seal made by the licensee has not been disturbed.

Click HERE to view the Home Page of the Alaska State Legislature website.

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