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Lawmakers disregard public notice requirement, say they're following 'spirit' of rule

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published April 13, 2016

JUNEAU — Alaska lawmakers, crunched for time at the end of their 90-day session, commonly refer to the "24-hour rule" allowing them to give one day's notice instead of the usual four before committee meetings on legislation.

But, after invoking that rule, they often simply ignore it.

Routine violations in the Legislature's final days have drawn critiques from at least one reporter and from minority Democrats, with Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, citing the Republican-led Senate Resources Committee's treatment of oil tax legislation as one "egregious" example.

The committee chair, Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, unveiled her 43-page replacement for Gov. Bill Walker's tax legislation at 7 p.m. Monday. Then she announced public testimony on the bill the following day at 9 a.m. and told committee members they needed to submit amendments by 3 p.m. — before lawmakers could be presented with analysis from legislative consultants and the Walker administration.

Wielechowski said he was eating dinner at Kenny's Wok and Teriyaki Sushi Bar when his staff told him the replacement legislation was available — spurring him to race back up the hill to the Capitol to get to work.

"Unless you're an oil company executive or someone who's friends with an oil company executive, or someone who happens to check Basis at 6:30 p.m., there's absolutely no way of getting notice," he said, referring to the Legislature's online bill tracking system called Basis.

The Legislature's rules require committee chairs to give notice of hearings by 4 p.m. on the Thursday before the week of the meeting. But that requirement shrinks to 24 hours once both the House and Senate pass their budgets and a conference committee is named to hash out differences between the two spending plans.

"A person who chairs a standing, special, or joint committee shall post written notice of the time, place, and subject matter of a meeting at least 24 hours before," the rules say.

In practice, legislative leaders treat the 24-hour rule more like a 12-hour rule, with announcements of morning meetings often waiting until the evening before.

Jeremy Hsieh, the news director for Juneau's public television and radio stations, makes a point of noting violations of the 24-hour rule on Twitter — a habit that drew a sharp response this week from the Republican-led Senate majority caucus.

The caucus press secretary, Michaela Goertzen, asked Hsieh to remove one of his tweets that said the Senate's labor and commerce committee, chaired by Sen. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage, appeared to have broken the 24-hour rule.

She attached to her email a 10-year-old legislative legal opinion. The opinion said the "literal requirement of the rule is clear," but added in the face of an objection, "it could certainly be argued that the past practice of the Legislature amounts to an interpretation that the rule requires a preceding day notice rather than a full 24-hour notice."

"Since the '90s, we have interpreted the 24-hour rule as the day before — not a literal 24 hours," Goertzen wrote in her email to Hsieh. She added, referring to Hsieh's tweet: "Because the accusation is inaccurate, I request that it be removed."

"The rule is being broken in letter but not in spirit," Goertzen added in a subsequent email.

Hsieh was unmoved. He's continued tweeting violations, telling Goertzen it's the Legislature's responsibility to write and enforce its rules, and the responsibility of reporters to "highlight substantive problems in government."

He noted nonetheless the Legislature can violate its own rules with "impunity," citing an Alaska Supreme Court opinion that said the judiciary "may not invade the Legislature's province of internal rulemaking."

Asked about Wielechowski's objections about the oil tax bill, Giessel, the resources committee chair, responded that the 24-hour rule is a "nonsubject."

"This is how it's always done, when I was in the minority," she said in an interview. "This is nothing."

(Wielechowski said he didn't know if he ever violated the 24-hour rule as a committee chair when he was in the Senate's bipartisan coalition and chaired the State Affairs Committee. He added: "I hope I didn't.")

Lawmakers' notice requirements operate more by tradition than they do by firm rules, as do many other legislative practices, said Dave Donaldson, a retired correspondent for the Alaska Public Radio Network and the former dean of the Capitol press corps.

Short-notice meetings present logistical challenges for reporters and producers, Donaldson added, though citizens rarely protest. The problems with the 24-hour rule are just one example of an unwieldy branch of government that's marked by its imperfections, he said.

"They don't make sense, they don't have to make sense, they don't want to make sense in many ways," Donaldson said in a phone interview. "If you expect perfection, then find it and vote for it."

The Senate's majority leader, North Pole Republican John Coghill, said he'd be "open to discussion" about changing the Legislature's rules so they reflect established practices — perhaps with a "12-hour rule" instead of requiring 24.

"We adopted the rule," he said. "Next day is how we've treated it. And maybe that's what we should say."

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