Feb. 20, 2002 The Anchorage Daily News says House bill allows lawmakers to abdicate responsibility

Posted: Monday, February 25, 2002

Every time we look around, there's a new attempt to put democracy on autopilot in Juneau -- a spending limit or a tax cap or a term limit or some other attempt to rearrange the rules to convince voters that legislators will -- in the future -- be more responsible. Most of the time these tricks do nothing more than blur the focus on the real issue, which is ultimately both profoundly simple and properly difficult. The real issue is votes.

In a democracy, if you've got enough votes, you prevail. If you don't ... well, you don't.

It's really that simple, and also that hard.

What keeps showing up in Juneau is a lot of well-intended whining from people who either don't have the votes or don't want to do the work to get them. So they go around wrapping themselves in the flag of some right-sounding principle in order to change the rules.

A recent example comes in the form of a bill passed by the state House calling on executive agencies to prioritize state programs in their annual budget requests. Prioritizing is a good goal but this is a bad bill because it helps the Legislature duck its responsibility.

It doesn't take a genius to see where this idea goes: Whatever shows up at the bottom of any priority list goes to the top of any target list -- and you can practically hear the press releases flying off the fax fingering the administration for the rankings. Suddenly the decision-making arena -- not to mention a lot of lobbying, power and attention -- lands on the shoulders of state commissioners rather than state legislators. It's backwards, an abdication of legislative responsibility.

Rep. Fred Dyson -- a decent guy who's trying hard -- defends his measure by saying, first, that legislators respect the professional expertise of public servants and, second, that the Knowles administration has refused to offer a priority ranking of programs. ''It is easy for the administration to refuse to cooperate with the Legislature in making budget decisions, wash their hands of responsibility and then lob rhetorical bombs at the unfair results,'' he writes.

To which the right answer is not an abdication of responsibility, but a rhetorical question: So what? All the Legislature needs to deal with that is some guts.

The Legislature has plenty of tools to get the information it needs. Members are elected partly because they know their districts and constituents. They have travel budgets and staff. They have research capacity and the ability to hire contractors. They hold hearings and call witnesses. They can punish recalcitrant bureaucrats. If they really need to, they can compel testimony. Most importantly, as elected representatives of the people, they're the ones who're supposed to set policy and priorities. This is their major constitutional duty. They should do it with knowledge, toughness, decency and, dare we hope, vision.

And at the end of the day, they vote. If they're not up to all that, they shouldn't be there. They have the responsibility, and they shouldn't fob it off on bureaucrats.

Rep. Dyson's bill asks the administration to do the Legislature's job. It blurs accountability. It begs a bigger question, which is: What do the people of Alaska want to do, and how much of it? That question is ultimately the most important reason we have a Legislature.

What's needed is really pretty basic: A return to the fundamentals of American representative democracy. That means votes, not formulas or promises. Instead of rewriting the rules, the ladies and gentlemen of the Alaska Legislature need only to do their duty.


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