Citizens group says Alaskans shut out by Legislature

Posted: Wednesday, February 05, 2003

JUNEAU (AP) -- It's going to be more difficult for Alaskans to follow the flow of some proposed laws from afar after a seemingly minor change in the Senate Rules Committee, a citizens watchdog group said Tuesday.

The Senate Rules Committee voted this week to discontinue regular meetings and give its chairman, Sen. John Cowdery, R-Anchorage, the power to schedule bills for a floor vote.

Such a move makes it more difficult for the public to determine when a measure is about to be debated by the Legislature, said Steve Cleary of the Alaska Public Interest Research Group.

Senate Rules Committee members voted 3-2 Monday to change the way legislation flows to the floor. The House Rules Committee, which has traditionally followed that procedure, also agreed Tuesday to allow the chairman to schedule bills.

When the Senate Rules Committee approves a bill -- typically the last stop before a measure goes to the floor for a vote -- it's a signal to Cleary that he should communicate with lawmakers on measures that his group is following, he said.

Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, echoed the complaint, saying the Senate Rules Committee acts as a sort of ''early warning radar'' that alerts his caucus when to prepare for floor debate on an issue.

''People have been discouraged about their voices not being heard by legislators,'' Cleary said. ''I think this is one in a number of steps -- including closed caucus meetings -- that will leave the public out.''

Senate President Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, downplayed the impact such a procedural move would have on debate. The Senate Rules Committee does not argue the merits of a bill and the committee chairman always had power over what bills are taken up by the committee, he said.

Bills about to be debated on the floor would be listed the day before on the Senate calendar, usually by 5 p.m.

In practice, bills sometimes were not taken up by the full Senate for days after the Rules Committee acted, Therriault said.

Cowdery did not return repeated telephone calls for comment on Tuesday. But he told The Associated Press on Monday that sponsors of legislation sometimes are asked to submit ''chit sheets,'' showing a majority of legislators have signed on to support a bill. Those commitments often are made in one-on-one discussions among legislators.

Cowdery said he would continue the practice of requiring ''chit sheets'' for some bills. Such sheets must show support from 11 members of the 20-seat Senate assuring their passage.

Therriault said giving the Senate Rules chairman scheduling power simply eliminates ''an exercise in futility'' in which the committee dominated by the majority party votes to move legislation to the floor.

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