Rule kicks legislature into high gear

Posted: Monday, April 10, 2000

JUNEAU -- The Legislature kicks into high gear this week, as Republican leaders' plans to adjourn early get a boost from a procedural rule that can quicken normally sedate committee work to a dizzying pace.

On Friday, the House and Senate followed long tradition and rejected each other's versions of the state's operating budget for the coming fiscal year.

As Senate President Drue Pearce and House Speaker Brian Porter appointed members of a joint conference committee to work out a compromise on the spending measure, they triggered a procedural change known as the 24-hour rule.

That means committees can hold hearings on legislation with only a day's notice instead of the five days required during the rest of the session. While that may seem a trivial difference, in reality it's a fast-forward button for the entire Legislature.

Under normal procedures, a bill can take weeks to clear all the committees scheduled to hear it. But the 24-hour rule allows bills and resolutions to leap from committee to committee to a vote on the floor of the House or the Senate in a matter of hours. Key changes can be difficult to track in the rush.

Veteran Rep. Ramona Barnes, one of the Legislature's longest-serving members and an acknowledged master of its rules and rituals, said the rule is intended for efficiency at the end of the session -- not to obscure lawmakers' work from the public eye.

''When you've passed the budget, you're down to the end of the session,'' said Barnes, R-Anchorage. ''Most of these bills that will move now are bills that have already been heard, that have already had public testimony.''

But minority Democrats worry the GOP majority will try to push through legislation without adequately considering its policy implications.

''Our concern is they open the gushers and bad bills start flowing out,'' said House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage.

The rule is designed to speed the Legislature's adjournment, a complex deal that involves dozens of bills late in the session. Some of those measures are priorities of the GOP majority. Others are pet projects of individual lawmakers.

Many priority bills now rest in various committees while lawmakers muster the support needed. Sometimes, one committee's chairman will hold a key bill as a way to spring his own legislation from another panel or ensure a key item ends up in the budget.

As deals are cut, the 24-hour rule greases bills' paths through the process, ensuring the measures won't die at the end of the session simply because someone neglected to schedule a hearing.

The rule is in effect weeks earlier than usual this year because of the Republican majority's push to adjourn before Easter, which falls on April 23. The session's mandatory ending date is May 9.

''We are on schedule to adjourn ... on about the 20th,'' Pearce said Friday as she put the rule into effect.

Another example of the Legislature's quickening pace can be found in the House calendar for today. It holds 15 separate bills and resolutions. That's the longest docket of the session, and it reflects another timing issue at the end of the session -- minority Democrats' ability to stall.

Passing a bill on the floor of the House or the Senate normally takes three days -- one day for debate on amendments, a second for debate and a vote on the measure itself, and a third for a final reconsideration vote.

With less than two weeks before the majority's projected adjournment, that requirement could come into play.

In the Senate, Republicans control enough votes to compact that process into a single day. But the House minority is stronger, and has shown itself willing to block the progress of bills it opposes.

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