Alaska Legislature

As budget struggles continue, Alaska’s special legislative sessions aren’t so special anymore

JUNEAU — On Monday, the Alaska Legislature began its fourth special session of 2021 with a record in sight.

If legislators work to the session’s full 30-day limit, they will have been in session for 217 days this year, the most of any year since the first Alaska Territorial Legislature convened in 1912.

Since 2006, the number of special sessions has increased dramatically, driven by budget struggles, increased polarization among lawmakers, and the priorities of the state’s latest governors.

That trend has added to the state budget and has undercut the state’s goal to have a “part-time, citizen legislature.”

Financial disclosure forms show few of Alaska’s 60 legislators maintain outside work, in part because sessions have become so long.

In 2016, many legislators were already calling the Legislature a full-time job. That year saw them in session for 157 days. The next year, they were in session for 211. This year’s tally is up to 187 days.

Three of the five longest legislative years have taken place since 2014.

Nationally, special sessions aren’t unusual

The National Conference of State Legislatures considers Alaska one of 10 states with a “full-time” or “full-time-lite” legislative branch, based on pay, the amount of time they work and the number of staff.

This year, Alaska is the only state with a Legislature that has held four special sessions, according to a calendar kept by the NCSL.

That figure is somewhat misleading: Eleven states don’t limit the length of their regular legislative sessions. That avoids the need to call most special sessions.

Alaska used to be like that, too. As originally written, the Alaska Constitution didn’t limit the length of the regular session. According to Gordon Harrison, who wrote an annotated guide to the constitution, its authors believed the Legislature shouldn’t rush because “the business of state government is too complex to be transacted in hurried, infrequent sessions.”

In the first decade after statehood, legislative sessions were comparatively short. The first to exceed 90 days was in 1969.

When oil revenue swelled the state budget, sessions grew, and voters became dissatisfied with the length of those sessions.

In 1984, Alaskans voted by a 3:1 margin to approve a constitutional amendment to cap the length of the regular session at 120 days. (This was later modified to 121 days by an Alaska Supreme Court ruling.)

Afterward, special sessions became more common, though still infrequent.

In 2006, after a then-unprecedented three special sessions, voters approved a ballot measure cutting the regular session to 90 days.

Because that limit isn’t in the state constitution, it’s effectively optional for legislators. They have met the 90-day goal only once without also calling a special session.

Blair Hess, a spokesperson for the Council of State Governments, said that by national standards, it “isn’t too unusual to have four sessions in a year. Last year (in 2020), several states had four or five special sessions, mostly due to necessary COVID-19 policies and measures.”

But in Alaska, the special sessions haven’t been driven by COVID-19. They’ve been caused by the state’s struggles with oil revenue and the Permanent Fund dividend.

“It’s all over the PFD and the budget. That’s what it is,” said Speaker of the House Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak.

‘When you don’t have money, it’s harder’

From the late 2000s through 2014, high oil prices meant the state had enough revenue to pay for the budget, expand infrastructure and save billions in various accounts.

In 2014, prices plunged and so did state revenue.

“When you don’t have money, it’s harder to get the things accomplished that you think need to be done,” said Mike Chenault, who was Speaker of the House at the time.

Chenault, a Republican, was in charge of the state House for the first two years of independent Gov. Bill Walker’s tenure. There were five special sessions in those two years, most coming as Walker tried to get lawmakers to pass a tax and revenue plan.

Chenault said Walker’s plans lacked support, and he urged House lawmakers to bring them to a floor vote. If they voted them down, it might have deterred Walker from calling additional sessions.

“And I couldn’t convince my guys to do it. So the governor kept calling us back. And then we sat there and spun our wheels,” Chenault said.

The pattern continued in different form after Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy was elected in 2018, defeating Walker behind a pledge to pay a larger Permanent Fund dividend.

In 2019, Dunleavy proposed steep budget cuts in order to pay for that dividend.

Lawmakers rejected those ideas, and the debate between the branches of government extended into multiple special sessions.

This year, the governor has proposed using some of the Alaska Permanent Fund’s record earnings to pay for a larger dividend.

Lawmakers have rejected that idea, largely because it would require them to break a limit on annual spending from the Permanent Fund. Because the fund’s earnings are the largest source of revenue for state services, they contend that spending more from the fund now will mean less revenue later, thus requiring tax increases or cuts to services.

The governor disagrees with that assessment and has called the Legislature into special session. The Permanent Fund gained a record 30% last year.

“There’s never been a time quite like this in history, where some of our funds are doing tremendously well, while the people of Alaska may not be,” he said.

Per diem

The special sessions themselves have come with a price tag.

Through Sept. 23, the first three special sessions cost $1.49 million, according to figures from the Legislative Affairs Agency, the Legislature’s administrative arm.

That cost will rise as the fourth session takes place and as lawmakers continue submitting reimbursement requests for the third session.

Legislators who live outside of Juneau can claim $293 per day for housing, food and the other costs of maintaining a second household.

As of Sept. 23, lawmakers had requested and received $217,113 in per diem expense payments for the third session. That’s on par with per diem in the first two special sessions.

Legislators are regularly criticized for claiming per diem. Chenault said the same thing occurred when he was in office.

“If I was in Juneau, I’m going to collect the per diem that’s owed to me, and I’ve got expenses there that I’m having to pay,” he said.

As for current legislators, “they’ve got to live with it. They’ve got to live with the voters of their district. And if the voters of their district are fine with it, then apparently it’s OK.”

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