No one can tell how long the current legislative session will last. The last one set a record: four special sessions after the regular 90-day time limit concluded, for a total over 200 days. The law calls for a 90-day session. Treating that law as if it doesn't matter breaks faith with Alaska voters.
This is not a positive development. The 90-day limit was mandated by a citizens' initiative in 2006. The first session in which the initiative took effect was 2008. Since then, legislators have ignored the limit six out of 10 times. Last year was the longest.
How can that happen? To understand, one must know some of the fundamentals of Alaska law and government. The 90-day limit is law, but only legislative law. The Legislature can vote to override it — ignore it — which they do. This differs from constitutional law. The Alaska Constitution limits legislative sessions to 120 days. The Legislature cannot change what's in the Constitution; that can be done only by constitutional amendment, which must be voted on by the people. That's because the people, not the Legislature, write the Constitution and change it when they wish. The people, with their Constitution, create the Legislature.
As originally written, the Alaska Constitution had no limit on the length of a legislative session. But when extraordinary amounts of money from oil taxation started showed up in the state treasury after 1977, legislative sessions began to get very long — 185 days once — as lawmakers argued about how to divvy up the spoils. That led to the constitutional amendment in 1984 that set the 120-day limit.
And one would think that should be the end of it: 120 days. Well, no. The Constitution provides that the Legislature can hold one 30-day special session, by a two-thirds vote of the members. Fair enough. But what about the 200-plus other days? The Constitution provides that the governor can call a special session. In fact, the governor can call as many special sessions as he wants. And he has — four special sessions last year. And on and on.
Why have we recently had long legislative adventures again? Mostly because the governors — the people who are supposed to govern, which is mostly the governor and the Legislature — have not produced a fiscal plan to deal with the budget shortfall visited upon us by fallen oil prices. There are interesting, though not always enlightening, arguments as to why they have not done so. There are also intriguing arguments on either side of the question of whether there should be a 90-day limit, a 120-day limit or any limit at all on the length of legislative sessions. But whatever side of those issues your inclinations may take you, the failure of the governors to comply with the results of a vote of the people contributes to the distrust of government that has been growing in this country since at least the Watergate scandal.
Scholars and pundits have been decrying the deterioration of government trustworthiness for all that time, and perhaps not surprisingly given the strength of conservative convictions about limited government, there is no consensus on whether it's a good or bad development. But analysts do agree that it's not good for democracy, that is, government by the people. The more people distrust government, the less likely they are to find it credible and to work with it. The less likely they are to vote and to look to government for service. That puts government into the hands of a smaller number of participants — officials and voters — and reduces oversight of what they're doing.
The premise of democracy is that the will of the people should be reflected in the actions of their governors. While we may not agree with the ideology and positions of those who get elected, most of us leave school believing that in a democracy, the majority rule, and we're obligated to abide by majority outcomes, rather than defying the rule of law.
By that theory, the Legislature should stop acting so unseemly, stop defying the majority will of the people, and either limit their sessions accordingly or repeal the law.
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