May 18, 2002 The Anchorage Daily News calls for subsistence special session to be held sans caucuses

Posted: Monday, May 20, 2002

The Special Session On Subsistence -- and whatever other unfinished business is still out there -- presents an opportunity for the Alaska Legislature to reform, at least briefly, one of its worst habits. Subsistence law and policy is now one of the longest-running and most painful disputes in Alaska. One way to improve the climate would be to hold this debate right out in the sunlight.

Standard operating procedure in the Capitol nowadays is as simple as it is antidemocratic: Nothing really important happens in the open, where Alaskans can examine the reasoning. Everything that matters is simply presented on the floor for a show-vote -- except when there's not even a vote.

A group of nominees to four of the most important state decision-making boards is axed without anyone in the Legislature having to vote on their qualifications. A proposal to throw a $760 million subsidy at a natural gas pipeline pops up just before the end of the session and gets bounced around in all sorts of secret negotiations before dying in a breakdown of the dealmaking. A far-reaching fiscal plan clears the House but only after 15 votes appear inside the closed Republican majority caucus. Inside the Democratic caucus, and in some mysterious negotiation with the majority leadership, decisions are made on how much to demand and how much to accept in return for this year's vote to raid the Constitutional Budget Reserve to ''balance'' the budget. Virtually every day near the end of the session, lawmakers spend hours in closed caucus meetings deciding what to do and why.

Sometimes the rationale for these decisions is leaked, but most of the time it's not. Sometimes the actual reasoning is repeated later on the floor, but for most citizens there's no way to know how much. Sometimes committee meetings produce information or perspective that changes minds or enriches legislation, but most often the real decisions happen some other way.

This method is not working.

The big problems -- subsistence and fiscal structures -- aren't being solved in secret. Other matters languish or flourish in the realms of naked power play and special-interest lobbying. Research, analysis and public testimony become as much an afterthought as a foundation for sound policy-making.

The caucuses may believe they protect themselves from a little embarrassment and controversy now and then, but there's no reason to think legislators do their jobs better this way than out in the open.

The occasional enlightening exceptions prove the rule. Debate in the House last month on income or sales taxes was honest and searching. Debate just this week on an abortion bill revealed the depth of feeling and concern around the issue. On Thursday afternoon, while the Senate was coming apart in secret conflict, the House Resources Committee held a bang-up hearing on subsistence.

A certain amount of discretion, private counsel and advance notice among individuals is necessary to get things done. But in this Legislature the practice has gone way too far. One reason why citizens so often lack trust in the Legislature is that it seems to be so afraid to level with them.

You may object to all this secrecy on moral grounds that it undermines democracy or you may complain on practical grounds that it produces bad results. What has become increasingly clear is that these two factors are linked: Bad process produces bad policy.

So for the subsistence special session, why not try doing it the right way? Why not banish the caucuses and give Alaskans a chance to know what each of their elected leaders believes on this crucial question, and why?

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