Sunday, December 13, 2009

Alaska State Legislators Unhappy With Popularly-Mandated 90-Day Session, Want To Return To 120-Day Session

Until now, the Alaska State Legislature has scrupulously respected the 90-day session limit imposed upon them by misguided voters who narrowly approved General Ballot Measure 1 in November 2006 with 50.8 percent of the vote. Because the measure didn't take effect until the 2008 session, the earliest the legislature can overturn it is during the 2010 session. State law allows the legislature to vacate a ballot measure two years after passage.

But a majority of lawmakers have become fed up with the 90-day limit, according to stories in the Juneau Empire and the Fairbanks Daily News Miner. A special committee working between sessions surveyed members and staff of the State House. The result: Widespread unhappiness with the shorter, 90-day sessions.

"The data reinforces what we've been hearing during the session: The short time constraints make it hard to serve your constituents well," said Rep. Paul Seaton (R-Homer), chair of a small House subcommittee who was asked to look into the issue. Seaton said the 41-question survey, which three-quarters of the House members and about half their staff members answered, concluded there were numerous problems with meeting for only 90 days. But although the State Senate did not participate in the survey, their leaders also have been outspoken in their opposition to shorter sessions. Read the 16-page survey HERE.

Problems cited:

-- Insufficient time to study issues
-- Insufficient time to provide multiple hearings for bills, which are commonly sent to multiple committees
-- Insufficient time to effectively visit with constituents
-- Too many special sessions necessitated to tend to unfinished business
-- More obstructionism by recalcitrant committee chairs who can sit on a bill easier to hinder its progress

Seaton was asked to look into the issue by the Legislative Council, the joint committee that manages the business of the legislature. Under state law passed to implement the 90 day session, the Legislative Council is required to issue a report on how the shorter sessions have worked before the Legislature convenes in January 2010.

Two of the three sponsors of Ballot Measure 1, Sen. Tom Wagoner (R-Kenai) and Rep. Jay Ramras (R-Fairbanks), are still serving in the legislature. They sponsored the initiative in 2006 after failing to persuade colleagues to shorten the sessions themselves.

Whether the legislature changes the law back in 2010 is problematic. Every House seat and a few Senate seats are up for grabs, and incumbents might be a bit gun-shy about voting to reverse a ballot measure during an election year. So don't be surprised if this is deferred to 2011.

Reaction: Most people posting comments to the stories oppose returning to the 120-day limit. They believe the only reason the legislature can do its business within 90 days is inefficiency. They obviously are unfamiliar with the complexity of the legislative process. Being that over 90 percent of the lawmakers are not from Juneau, lawmakers don't have a personal incentive to remain in Juneau any longer than is absolutely necessary to conclude business. In fact, many special sessions are now held in Anchorage. But here's one intelligent comment from someone who supports returning to the 120-day session:

robbmyers wrote on Sunday, Dec 13 at 04:27 PM

I was against the 90-session when it was being voted on, and I still think it's a bad idea. From watching the last 120-day session from up close to talking to a couple of friends who have worked there since, it's a bad situation.

The biggest complaint I hear is that the oversight has dropped considerably. The legislature doesn't have time to get good information from their legal department or from the various executive branches that the legislation in question will affect. They also dropped the number of days of notice required for a committee hearing from 5 to 3, lessening the chance for people to testify.

I can only point to one good thing that the 90-day sessions have brought. Most of the Anchorage legislators used to fly home on Fridays and back to Juneau on Sundays. The 90-day sessions have ended that by adding the necessity of Saturday meetings.

The Alaska Political Corruption blog reveals that there was a debate about the 90-day session limit in Anchorage on December 9th. Two of those present were the legislative point men for either side; Jay Ramras and Paul Seaton.

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