Senate to vote on shorter session

Posted: Friday, February 11, 2000

JUNEAU -- A proposal to shorten the Legislature's regular session by a month passed out of a key Senate committee Thursday with new provisions aimed at lessening the governor's control over lawmakers during special sessions.

Sen. Sean Parnell originally proposed shortening the 121-day session to 75 days as a way to save money and foster a citizen Legislature. The version passed by the Senate Finance Committee calls for a 90-day session beginning in early February.

''A shorter session would focus our attention on that which matters,'' said Parnell, R-Anchorage. ''It would focus our attention more keenly on budget matters and select bills.''

Shortening the current 121-day session by more than a month would save $810,000 a year, according to the Legislative Affairs Agency.

The amendment passed out of the committee over the vehement objections of Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, who argued that shortening the session would give more power to the governor and state departments.

''When you put a fence around the Legislature, what you do is give more power to the executive,'' Kelly said. ''You're putting a fence around the people.''

Kelly's opposition drew few allies, but launched an attack on the governor's power over the Legislature during special sessions.

The constitution allows governors to limit special sessions to a very narrow topic to prevent procedural gamesmanship on controversial issues.

The committee amended Parnell's proposal over his objection to eliminate that power and allow lawmakers to take up a wide range of topics.

Sen. Dave Donley, R-Anchorage, said that would allow the Legislature to do meaningful work in special sessions, which he said are often political sideshows. He pointed to three special sessions on subsistence called by Gov. Tony Knowles in the past two years. All three ended in predictable deadlock, Donley said, allowing Knowles to criticize lawmakers for their inaction.

Parnell also opposed another change sponsored by Donley that would give the Legislature the power to decide where a special session called by the governor would actually take place.

''Governors can use the locations of special sessions that they call to blackmail the Legislature,'' said Donley, who said holding special sessions in Anchorage instead of Juneau also would save money. That amendment also passed.

An amendment to move the Legislature's regular session to Anchorage failed by one vote.

The changes to Parnell's original proposal may slow or halt its progress through the Legislature. The measure is a constitutional amendment, and must pass the Senate and the House by two-thirds majorities to go before voters in November.

While Gov. Tony Knowles is generally supportive of shorter sessions, he isn't interested in losing the power to restrict special sessions, spokesman Bob King said. Some lawmakers of both parties, including Parnell, also object to anything-goes special sessions.

''Past legislators have appreciated and have been well served by the ability to set a limited agenda during special sessions,'' King said. ''This is a way to focus their attention on specific issues and not open the floodgates to everything.''

Meanwhile, the governor and some lawmakers will oppose the amendment because of the provision allowing the Legislature to hold its special sessions outside Juneau. Such incremental attempts to move parts of state government to Anchorage are known in the capital city as ''capital creep.''

''It's ... a capital move in disguise,'' said Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau.

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