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Long delay in signing Alaska Native language bill is pure politics

  • Author:
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 16, 2014

FAIRBANKS—Five months have passed since 56 out of 60 legislators approved a bill to revise the law that says English is the official language of Alaska.

But the bill has yet to become law because Gov. Sean Parnell is waiting for the right political opportunity to deal with it — the annual convention of the Alaska Federation of Natives.

To pull this off, legislative leaders and the governor have to engage in a delaying action that violates the spirit of the Alaska Constitution, which sets a 20-day deadline to approve or veto bills. It also contradicts the spirit of the Uniform Rules of the Legislature, a document that says bills are to be moved along after errors are corrected.

The rules say nothing about holding bills to follow a political timetable.

Parnell and the current legislative kingpins are hardly the first to distort the Constitution and the uniform rules in this matter, but they have carried it to an extreme with this bill. By the time the language list is complete, it will have taken nearly six months for the bill to travel a few hundred feet.

In recent years, the practice of holding bills for extended periods has led to the never-ending bill-signing ceremonies that fill the calendar in June, July and August, one of the great advantages of an incumbent running for re-election. Parnell signed the last bill of 2013 in July of that year, but held ceremonies in September the two preceding years, acted upon items approved in the spring.

The process has become long and drawn out. But that's not what the drafters of the state Constitution envisioned. They laid out a system that would have the final bills acted upon less than a month after adjournment.

On the 42nd day of the Alaska Constitutional Convention, delegate Dora Sweeney explained the plan to set a deadline for action by the governor: "If the Legislature is not in session he has 20 days in which to either sign or veto the bill. Otherwise it will become law."

The 20-day period excluded Sundays, giving the governor a few extra days for deliberation. Sweeney said the process was easy to understand.

The delegates thought they had given the governor plenty of leeway. After all, the 1912 Organic Act had required action in three days and other states had a variety of rules and timetables.

But the Constitution included an unintentional loophole. It says that the timetable for action by the governor begins "after delivery of the bill." And the Constitution did not cover the possibility that a bill would go undelivered by design.

Long ago, our elected officials determined that the way to eliminate the constitutional deadline was to arrange for late delivery. The scholars who have looked at this in the past said that delays of "days or weeks" are common, but it has grown in recent years to months.

If the same party controls the governor's office and the Legislature, as is true today, the two branches are eager to coordinate.

Only one floor separates the Legislature from the governor, but by mutual agreement the two branches have agreed to delay delivery of the language bill until the end of this month or early October, so it can be signed during the AFN festivities. The members of AFN will be happy to see the bill become law.

The governor's office said the idea for signing the bill at AFN came from the governor's rural affairs advisor, John Moller, and "AFN's leadership thought it was a great idea."

The bill proclaims that 20 Native languages are official state languages, though it includes the proviso that the new languages do not have to be part of official documents or proceedings. The bill would not require the conduct of government business in any tongue other than English.

The bill, sponsored by Sitka Democratic Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, was co-sponsored by two-thirds of the Legislature. It won approval with close to universal support. The only "no" votes came from Fairbanks Sens. Pete Kelly and John Coghill, while Reps. Lora Reinbold and Bill Stoltze were absent.

Final action took place at 3:30 a.m. on April 21, thanks to a polite 15-hour sit-in at the Capitol by dozens of people, both young and old, who gathered in the legislative halls on the 90th day of the session. The Senate had not placed the bill on its calendar and would not have done so without the pressure created by the presence of supporters in the halls. The bill is the only measure remaining from the 2014 session that has not been acted upon.

Byron Mallott, the lieutenant governor candidate running with independent Bill Walker, said the efforts of Kreiss-Tomkins and other legislators responsible for the bill should be recognized whenever the bill is signed by Parnell.

"Signing it at the AFN convention would certainly be nothing more than political theater," said Mallott. "I can't speak for the AFN leadership, but I think that everyone would view it pretty much that way."

The usual comment from officialdom about why some bills take months to deliver is that this allows the governor enough time to examine complicated bills. That is true in some cases. In others, it is a matter of political timing.

But that's not what the language of the Constitution calls for.

Dermot Cole, a Fairbanks-based reporter and columnist for Alaska Dispatch News, has been covering Alaska politics and writing about Alaska history for nearly 40 years.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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