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Alaska Legislature reconsiders 90-day session

  • Author: Patti Epler
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published March 8, 2011

Reducing the legislative session from 120 to 90 days every year has not cut legislative costs or encouraged more people to run for office as backers of the voter initiative had anticipated, according to the sponsor of a bill that would boost the length of session back to 120 days in even-numbered years.

And the shorter session shifts more of the political power toward the governor and away from the Legislature, Senate President Gary Stevens, a Kodiak Republican and sponsor of Senate Bill 18 told the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday.

"In the end, I think it's just not working," Stevens said.

Tim Lamkin, a staffer for Stevens who has studied the history of legislative sessions, said session costs have dropped since the 90-day rule began in 2008. But overall legislative costs have gone up because more money is being spent on payroll, interim activities, travel and other things lawmakers must do when not in Juneau, he said.

Stevens and Lamkin also pointed out that fewer people are running for office these days -- down from 150 legislative candidates in 2000 to 100 in 2010. The change to shorter sessions was supposed to encourage more people to run because they wouldn't have to be away from their homes and businesses so long.

Sen. Donny Olson, D-Nome, pointed out that in the past 10 years other factors may have influenced the decision not to run, including corruption and ethics concerns that surfaced a few years ago as well as a downturn in the economy.

Stevens agreed that other factors might have played a role but said the numbers still show the shorter session didn't encourage more people to run.

"So," he said, "many of the reasons I believe for why this was on the ballot have not held up."

Stevens said he introduced the measure to get the discussion startedon whether the public is being shortchanged by the shorter sessions. He believes that the public is not getting its money's worth out of the Legislature and that the shorter session has left the Legislature in a "weakened condition" compared to the executive branch.

"We keep the administration's feet to the fire," Stevens said, noting that the governor has opposed extending the session.

"Part of our job is to protect the institution we serve," Stevens said. "I think we've done some damage to it. This is our opportunity to right that wrong."

Lamkin told the committee that the ballot initiative cutting the session to 90 days barely passed by a vote of 50.8 percent to 49.2 percent. It was also a year with very low voter turnout, he said.

The legislative session was unlimited until 1984 when lawmakers passed a constitutional amendment capping it at 120 days, Lamkin said. It stayed that way until the 2008 session, making this the fourth session on the shorter time frame.

Senate Finance Committee co-chair Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, said much of the legislature's time in any session is focused on the budget so the shorter time frame makes it hard to adequately consider other issues. This year, that is the debate over revamping the state's oil tax structure although, he noted, that is not the only significant issue on the table.

"It makes it very difficult from a time constraint to adequately do our job," Stedman said.

Fiscal notes that look at the effect of extending the session by 30 days every other year put the added cost at about $863,000, split between actual session costs and salary and allowances for employees who might otherwise be off the clock once session ended.

On the other hand, Stedman said, it is impossible to put a dollar figure on the financial impacts the state faces "when the Legislature doesn't have time to do its oversight duties."

No action was taken on the bill Tuesday.

Contact Patti Epler at patti(at)alaskadispatch.com

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