Some Democrats boycott meetings held in private offices

Lisa Demer

Alaska Senate budget panels are holding some of their meetings in legislators' private offices -- not committee rooms -- a change in practice that is leading some Democrats to boycott the sessions.

The budget overviews in individual offices aren't recorded and don't appear to have been publicized in advance. Legislative meetings in public committee rooms typically are recorded and archived.

The panels in question are Senate Finance subcommittees, which review and make recommendations on budgets for all state agencies.

Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks and co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, sent a memo Feb. 14 to other senators regarding what he called "informal overviews." He said no action or votes would be taken in legislators' offices and he expects that documents handed out will be posted on the Web.

"Due to the hectic nature of the 90 day session, scheduling conflicts and the overall lack of available meeting space in the building, some department subcommittee overviews may be held in individual legislative offices this session," Kelly said. "These informal overviews offer subcommittee members more opportunities to learn the details and reach a better understanding of the governor's operating budget proposal."

Asked about the in-office overviews on Tuesday, Kelly said such sessions were common in the 1990s. He previously served two terms in the House and one in the Senate.

"There are not actions taken. These aren't subcommittee meetings where you'll have any reports, any amendments, no directions are taken and ... no actions are taken," Kelly told reporters during a scheduled press availability by the Republican-led majority.

He said any official actions would only happen in public meetings, though added that there is no requirement subcommittees meet in public. He insisted that the overviews were not meetings, though he called them meetings in his memo.

Under the Legislature's internal rules, advance public notice of the "time, place and subject matter of all meetings of standing, special, and joint committees" must be provided by the committee chair through the House chief clerk or Senate secretary.

The rule doesn't mention subcommittees.

Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, who is the longest-serving current senator, said he doesn't remember meetings ever occurring in legislators' individual offices before this year. He's served on many budget subcommittees in his 26 years in the Legislature.

"I've never attended an overview, budget deliberation or official subcommittee meeting that was not in a public meeting room," Ellis said Tuesday in an emailed statement. "Over the last six years the Senate majority was able to schedule all subcommittee meetings in public meeting rooms, not in private, where the media and public could potentially be excluded."

He said he won't go to any meetings in private offices. Sen. Bill Wielechowski, a fellow Anchorage Democrat, said he wouldn't either.

A check of the Legislature's calendar for February showed a number of Senate finance subcommittee meetings scheduled in public meeting rooms, though some were canceled.

No meetings were announced as taking place in legislators' offices. Kelly recently held a meeting for the courts budget subcommittee in his office, other legislators said.

This year, the Senate has two new special committees, one on oil flow through the trans-Alaska pipeline and one on in-state energy, which are creating some scheduling issues, aides said.



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