Senators contest session length limits

Posted: Friday, March 11, 2011

Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, said legislators who in 2006 backed shorter legislative sessions may have been doing so because the were "selfish" or "self-serving," and it seemed as if they were putting their own interests ahead of that of the state or the Legislature.

Stevens appeared before the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday, supporting Senate Bill 18, his effort to partially reverse the initiative petition that adopted 90-day session limits for the Legislature.

Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, one of the initiative sponsors, later denied he supported shorter sessions in an effort to reduce his workload.

"I ran for office to represent my constituents," he said.

He said he'll spend the time in session, whether it is maximum 90 days called for under statute or the maximum 120 days called for in the Constitution, as needed, but thinks the shorter period is more efficient.

"I've never shied away from work," he said.

Stevens, though, told the Finance Committee that what may have been either an efficiency or cost saving measure has failed to produce the claimed benefits and has actually damaged the Legislature.

"It's not working," he said. "We have left the Legislature in a weakened position compared to the administration."

He said he's not surprised Gov. Sean Parnell likes the shorter sessions, but the legislators need the time in session to carry out their oversight functions.

That can include demanding answers about the cost overruns at the Mat-Su's Goose Creek Prison under the Parnell administration's watch, he said.

Wagoner said legislative leaders bear partial responsibility for any problems with the 90-day session, and could have required faster work or placed limits on bill introductions.

"There could have been a lot of things done to help the success of a 90-day session that haven't been attempted," he said.

The legislator versus legislator debate came about in part because of the unusual way the 90-day session limit came about.

Wagoner and two former legislators, Rep. Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks, and Sen. Gretchen Guess, D-Anchorage, were frustrated with not being able to persuade their colleagues to adopt shorter sessions. The 120-day maximum is in the Alaska Constitution.

Unable to get the supermajority needed to amend the Constitution, or even the simple majority to pass a statute, the three went to the initiative process.

In the 2006 voters approved the 90-day maximum into law, but as a statute. The 120-day maximum remains in the Constitution.

The vote was also narrow, 50.8 percent in favor, with 49.2 percent opposed.

"It did pass, but it barely passed," he said.

Legislators are allowed to repeal or amend voter-initiated laws after two years.

Stevens' bill would retain the 90-day maximum for the first year of a two-year legislative session, but go to 120-days in the second year. Other proposals would repeal it entirely.

A new fiscal note, the Legislature's official statement on what the bill would cost to implement, puts the cost at $450,000 in the second year of each sessions.

An earlier fiscal note in the maintained there would be no cost because there was already extra money budgeted for special sessions.

Senate Finance Co-chairman Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, said there was no way to estimate cost savings that are likely to come from increased oversight of state spending, such as the prison cost overruns.

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