Session length questioned

Posted: Sunday, January 30, 2011

Senate President Gary Stevens Thursday said that the shorter 90-day legislative sessions adopted by voters in 2006 are not working.

"The rationale was to save money, but it hasn't saved money," Stevens told the Senate State Affairs Committee. That panel held the first hearing Thursday for a bill sponsored by Stevens that would replace the 90-day session with a 120-day session in the second year of a two-year legislative term.

Testifying before a committee chaired by Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, Stevens said that the gains promised by initiative sponsors had failed to materialize, but significant problems had developed.

"I think the public has been shortchanged," he said. There's less time to review bills and less time for public involvement, he said.

"My real concern is that I think the Legislature has been weakened by this process," he said.

The legislature needs time to delve into issues and oversee state agencies to make sure they're serving the pubic. Ninety days doesn't provide adequate time to do that, Stevens said.

The 90-day session initiative adopted narrowly by voters as Ballot Measure 1 in 2006 didn't come from the public, but from three legislators frustrated with being unable to persuade their colleagues to shorten the sessions. Unable to amend the Alaska Constitution's 120-day maximum, they instead added the 90-day limit in statute with the initiative process.

One of the sponsors of that initiative, Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, disputed Stevens' analysis of his initiative's impact.

"I think it's working fine," he said.

"We save everything until the last 10 days anyway, that's when the business gets done."

If there are problems, he said, it's because "there's been no attempt to make it work."

Wagoner disputed the contention that the bill didn't save money.

"Sure it saves money," he said.

The savings in 30 days of $232 daily legislator per diem for 60 legislators is significant, he said. A per diem is a daily allowance given to legislators.

"That's almost half a million dollars in per diem, he said, "It sounds like chicken feed nowadays, but there are savings."

The Legislature's official cost estimate for the bill is that there would be no costs. That's based on the fact that savings from the shortened sessions were put into an account for special sessions. That account would be used to cover the cost of the longer sessions, so no additional appropriation would be needed.

That resulted in the bill getting what's called a "zero fiscal note," meaning it would officially have no budgetary impact.

Shorter legislative sessions, combined with legislators' recent pay raises to $50,000 plus per diem, should also help make it possible for a working person, not a retiree, to serve as a legislator, Wagoner said.

That has not happened, said Tim Lamkin, an aid to Stevens.

In 2000 there were 143 candidates for the legislature, compared to 101 last year, he said.

The biggest decline actually came after the voters shortened the sessions, he said.

"Since 2006, the candidate pool has shrunken 20 percent, the opposite of what was argued in favor of passing Ballot Measure 1," Lamkin said.

Wagoner acknowledged one flaw with the initiative he helped sponsor.

"We probably should have put a limit on the number of bills that each individual legislator can introduce," he said.

The quantity of work being demanded of staff and legislators hasn't decreased as much as the time in which to do it," he said.

"That's free overtime," Lamkin said.

While legislative aides aren't paid overtime, they love their jobs, he said.

Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, opposed extending the sessions and suggested the legislature work weekends as well.

He acknowledged that suggestion would likely "go over like a lead balloon," but noted that legislators get per diem on the weekends as well.

Last year the Legislature tested the waters by exceeding the 90-day limit by about 30 minutes in each legislative body.

Stevens said he and legislative attorneys were confident that actions taken after the end of the 90-day session were valid. They were within the 120-day constitutional limit, he said.

Wielechowski said his committee would take public testimony on the bill next week.

Ballot initiatives may be amended or repealed by the Legislature after two years.

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