Did session skirt voters' intent? Special session may, may not be what initiative backers had in mind

Posted: Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The 90-day legislative session ended Sunday and was immediately followed by a special session that could last up to 30 days. That process follows the legal requirements of the initiative that reduced sessions from the previous 120-day constitutional limit, the initiative's sponsors say.

"It was efficiently handled in an efficient, business-like and professional manner," said former Rep. Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks.

"They realized they were at an impasse at the end of the 90-day session, and asked the governor to call a special session, which is allowed," he said.

Voters adopted the 90-day session in 2006 by initiative petition. It came about unusually, after being sponsored by legislators who turned to the initiative process after failing to convince their colleagues to amend the constitution or simply adjourn earlier.

However, another sponsor of the 90-day initiative, Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, said Sunday night's action by the House, Senate and governor didn't follow the voters' intent when they passed the law shortening the sessions.

"They really didn't follow the will of the voters," Wagoner said, adding there might be repercussions.

"You can't fool the voters, they know they told us to get the job done quicker," Wagoner said.

Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, said he, too, doubted voters who supported the shorter sessions would be supportive of spending the same amount of time at work, but doing it in a combination of regular and special sessions.

"That's clearly not what they meant," he said, but noted he and most people in Juneau support 120-day sessions.

The House of Representatives, which is allied with Gov. Sean Parnell against the Senate in a battle over the capital budget, certified to the governor they'd been unable to reach an agreement on adjournment by Sunday evening, the expected end of the session. Both the bodies certified to the governor they were at an impasse over when the session should end, which under the constitution enables the governor to adjourn the session himself and then call a special session.

Parnell said Sunday was the first time since statehood that provision has been used. The House in 1993 certified a disagreement over adjournment, but then-Gov. Walter Hickel did not act on the measure, according to the Citizen's Guide to the Alaska Constitution.

In House debate on the adjournment motion, House Republican leaders blamed the Senate's failing to provide them with a capital budget for the impasse.

The Senate majority caucus said the impasse was due to the House's failure to provide them with an operating budget. The House passed an operating budget, but it remains in a conference committee where the chambers remain deadlocked over its details

Some House members wanted to keep working rather than adjourn.

"The real problem is that essentially we haven't gotten our work done," said Rep. Mike Doogan, D-Anchorage.

He said the 90-day limit isn't really a limit, and is trumped by the Alaska Constitution's 121-day limit.

Doogan also noted the 90-day session limit passed statewide by a very narrow margin, and failed in his Anchorage district.

Wagoner disputed that reasoning, saying that all it takes is 50 percent plus 1 vote to become law, and once it is law it needs to be followed.

"It isn't his district that makes that decision, it's the voters of the state of Alaska as a whole," he said.

Parnell on Sunday night said the House and Senate followed the intent of the voters when they sought to end the session on its 90th day.

He noted he's been a supporter of 90-day sessions since his own days as a legislator, and unsuccessfully introduced legislation of his own to shorten sessions.

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