Saturday, May 16, 2009

Alaska's Eagle River Legislative Caucus Critiques The 2009 Session, Criticizes The Senate As Obstructionist, Decries The 90-Day Session Limit

The Eagle River-Chugiak area just north of Anchorage proper is blessed with an unusually dedicated and productive group of state lawmakers. While all are Republican, all four faithfully solicit constituent input and carefully digest and weigh issues before casting their votes.

And during a legislative open house on May 7th, 2009, Senator Fred Dyson and Representatives Nancy Dahlstrom, Bill Stoltze, and Anna Fairclough showed up to interact with constituents and critique the just-concluded 2009 session of the 26th Alaska Legislature. While most were satisfied with having passed the state operating and capital budgets, they expressed some concern with the lack of legislation considered while in Juneau. One of them expressed frustration with the constraints of having only 90 days to accomplish their work. In turn, each lawmaker held forth:

Senator Fred Dyson: Addressed the performance of the Senate, which waded through the budget and what he referred to as a “so-called stimulus package.”

-- “Aside from the financial legislation, very little got done. I think the Senate operated relatively inefficiently. We didn’t meet much, the coalition didn’t consider matters outside the common denominators of their group and they got caught up in the circus atmosphere of appointments for attorney general and a vacant senate seat.”

-- On parental consent: “I think my colleagues in the Senate dropped the ball on the parental consent abortion issue. This is an important piece of legislation for Alaska and they appeared prepared to want to water it down or leave the law as it is currently.”

Rep. Anna Fairclough (District 17): Expressed frustration with the Senate's sandbagging of her daylight savings time bill, which easily passed in the House with bipartisan support. She also decried the 90-day session limit as being inadequate to fully address complex key issues.

-- “We managed to get the bill through the House without too much of a fight. But when it was sent to the Senate they assigned it to three committees, which is like getting a kiss of death.”

-- On the 90-day limit: “I felt like we were pushing to move legislation through the process without it being fully vetted. In the end, the Legislature passed 61 bills and 82 percent of them passed in the last five days of the session.”

Rep. Bill Stoltze (District 16): Because he represents both Chugiak and a part of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, he also works with the Mat-Su caucus as well as his own, and finds both caucuses equally dedicated and productive. He wasn't quite as critical.

-- “I’m not upset with the volume of bills we passed. Constitutionally we’re required to pass an operating budget, capital budget and mental health budget and we did those things. Plus we got bogged down with having to work through a lean budget year and sift through all the stimulus package data.”

Rep. Nancy Dahlstrom (District 18): Explained that the volume of legislation alone is not a good measuring tool for grading its work.

-- “Sometimes I think people get caught up in the number of bills we passed as a gauge for how much work we’ve done. That is not a fair evaluation. Some bills call for more public hearing than others do and some need more debate. With all the laws we have now, I sometimes think we should take some off the books whenever we pass a new one.”

The last sentence was a theme oft echoed by former Rep. Vic Kohring. Unfortunately, Kohring got tried, convicted, and deliberately bankrupted, and now sits in jail. Considering that the Ted Stevens prosecution proved to be tainted, perhaps it's time to ask if Kohring's prosecution wasn't equally tainted. After all, the infamous Bill Allen testified in both trials.

But in the final analysis, Rep. Dahlstrom lauded the ability of the Eagle River caucus to work together successfully despite any differences in personal opinions. She said it's almost like there are four of five legislators representing all of Chugiak-Eagle River, rather than one for each district.

Members of the legislative delegation will be in the community throughout the summer, participating in various community events. The second session of the 26th Legislature begins January 19th, 2010.

Analysis: Rep. Fairclough is absolutely right about the 90-day session. This ill-advised constraint was yet another product of the outburst of populist insanity which seized upon Alaska voters in 2006, when they voted not only to impose a 90-day session limit via Ballot Measure 1, but also a cruise ship initiative which has already cost us the visits of four cruise ships in 2010. The popular initiative allows beer-swilling rednecks, crackhead rappers, and Mat Valley Oxycontin Moms to ignorantly weigh in on serious and complex issues best left to a thoughtful, experienced legislature more capable of separating the wheat from the chaff.

Rep. Stolze makes a valid point about the stimulus package data. This required extra time to properly evaluate and digest this material in order to make an informed decision on its disposition. And the priority of this requirement was high. Thus, Rep. Dahlstrom's observation about legislative quantity not being a representative standard of evaluation is also on point. This is why I instead use "percentage of bills passed" as one of my litmus tests. And the 2009 legislature graded out poorly in this area - only 14 percent of bills proposed were passed.

The record shows that while the House at least tried to earn their pay this year, the Senate, for all of its value, might as well just gavelled out on the second day. With the rare exception of a Fred Dyson, the State Senate proved absolutely useless in 2009. In particular, Senate Democrats were the prime obstructionists, squandering six valuable weeks on their vendetta against Governor Sarah Palin over the Senate District B seat. I could understand them rejecting Tim Grussendorf, but there was no excuse for their prevarication on the Joe Nelson selection. It's obvious the State Senate was more interested in scoring points against Sarah Palin than they were in doing the people's business, and they undid some fine work done in the House in the process. Senators like Johnny Ellis, Hollis French, and Bettye Davis need to be remembered - and targeted for defeat - if they run for re-election again.

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