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Mischief in the House: Juneau legislator tries to block adjournment

  • Author: Pat Forgey
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published May 19, 2015

JUNEAU -- First, Rep. Sam Kito, D-Juneau, delivered a speech Tuesday on the nearly deserted floor of the House of Representatives, touting Juneau as a site for legislative meetings and urging action on the budget.

Then he threw the session into turmoil.

Or at least as much turmoil as so few representatives can manage. Tuesday's session was one of the "technical" variety -- normally a quick gavel-in, gavel-out. Technical sessions are called to maintain the constitutional requirement of meeting every three days, but no other work is accomplished.

Kito, who represents the downtown area around the Capitol, used the Tuesday meeting of the House of Representatives to deliver his speech on the special session's inactivity and its location.

For Juneau, the issue is hugely important. The community is always alert to the threat of a capital move, one of its greatest fears.

Addressing Speaker Mike Chenault, Kito spoke of reports that House and Senate leaders have decided to disregard the governor's proclamation calling the special session in Juneau, moving it to Anchorage.

"I urge you and the rest of this body to continue to meet in Juneau, where the proclamation has called us to do our business," Kito said.

Few people were in the room besides Chenault and some members of the news media, but also present in the gallery was teacher JoAnn Jones' fifth grade class from Auke Bay Elementary in Juneau.

Technical session or not, introducing guests is a favorite activity of legislators and Rep. Cathy Munoz, R-Juneau, was not going to pass up introducing a group from one of her schools.

With no other business to conduct, Chenault then turned to Munoz, also serving as the day's acting majority leader. She was the only other member in town from the 26-member, Republican-led majority caucus that controls the House and elected Chenault speaker.

Munoz had only one more duty on that day: to end the session.

"I'd like to move and ask unanimous consent that we stand adjourned and reconvene 1 p.m. Thursday," she said.

Munoz didn't specify a location, but Kito knew it was meant to be Anchorage. He objected, refusing to make it unanimous consent. That should have forced a vote on adjournment.

Kito said the Legislature, not its leadership, should decide where to meet. And they should do it publicly, he said.

Forcing a vote could keep the session going. While there were two Republicans in the chamber, Chenault and Munoz, Kito had an ally there too: Rep. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks. That would mean a motion to adjourn would fail on a 2-2 vote.

Under legislative rules, a majority of those present is needed to adjourn.

Chenault appeared stuck and unable to get out of the session.

"Brief at ease," he declared.

During "at ease" moments in a legislative session, formal records aren't kept and the audio feeds for broadcasts and the sound system are turned off, allowing legislators to talk freely and informally.

Chenault conferred with House Clerk Suzy Lowell about what to do. Kito conferred with Kawasaki. Chenault conferred with Kito. And then they conferred some more.

When an "at ease" is requested, they are invariably called "brief." Sometimes they actually are. This time the discussions went on and on. Well-thumbed copies of the Alaska Constitution, Alaska Statutes, the Legislature's Uniform Rules and Mason's Manual of Legislative Procedure were perused and sometimes brandished. Lawyers, senior staff and other experts were consulted.

Having seen their Legislature in action, Mrs. Jones' class filed out of the gallery to the next stop on their field trip.

Finally, Chenault had a decision, and the meeting continued.

By this time, Senate President Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, and Senate Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, were sitting in the gallery. They were waiting to use the House chambers for their own technical session -- the Senate chambers are unusable due to construction.

Chenault asked the two senators if they wanted to be introduced.

"Noooo," said Coghill.

Chenault said he was going to rule Kito's objection to adjournment "dilatory," meaning it was done only for delay and therefore invalid.

"This is a technical session, so therefore I'm ruling that the objection to the motion to adjourn is out of order," he said.

Kito then appealed Chenault's ruling, with the challenge to the ruling of the chair then going to a vote. The electronic vote display showed two votes to support Chenault, two votes opposed, and 36 absences.

Under Mason's Manual, which guides legislative activity, a tie vote sustains the action of the chair because a majority is needed to overturn it, Chenault said.

With that, the House activity for the day was done and the session adjourned.

Minutes later, the Senate's Meyer had gaveled in, conducted a technical session and gaveled out.

Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, served as minority leader and sole member of the minority among the three senators at the session.

Leaving the chambers, Egan explained why he hadn't tried to block adjournment of the Senate.

"Because I can count," he said.

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