Lawmakers tout shorter sessions

Bill would force adjournment after 90 consecutive days

Posted: Sunday, June 05, 2005

A bipartisan trio of state lawmakers has applied to petition for a ballot initiative to limit legislative regular sessions to 90 days.

Filing the application with Lt. Gov. Loren Leman's office on May 25 were Sens. Thomas Wagoner, R-Kenai, and Gretchen Guess, D-Anchorage, and Rep. Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks. They have asked that a ballot initiative be added to the August or November 2006 statewide ballot.

The application documents include a proposed bill to amend state law to require adjournment 90 consecutive calendar days after convening and a list of at least 100 sponsors required to launch the initiative petition process.

"This initiative effort has two purposes," Wagoner said Thursday. "One is to spur passage of a 90-day session bill by the Legislature. If that doesn't happen, then we'd have an initiative ready for the ballot."

The initiative and the associated bill would not amount to amending the Alaska Constitution, which would continue to allow for a session of 121 days. State lawmakers, however, could opt for a ballot measure to do that. The last time the session length was changed in the Constitution was 1984. Prior to that, there was no limit, according to the Department of Law.

Wagoner predicted eight out of 10 Alaska voters would support shortening sessions to 90 days. But past legislatures have often required to exceed the current 121-day session either in extended or special sessions because they failed to finish important business in the allotted time. The just completed first session of the 24th Legislature extended into a special session and kept lawmakers in Juneau an extra 15 days.

Asked how he thought a future Legislature limited to a 90-day session could accomplish its work in month's less time, Wagoner said it might take some changes in procedure.

"Instead of a four- or five-day workweek, maybe we'd have to work six or seven days," he said.

There might also be fewer bills, he added.

"Less time, less bills. Less bills means less chance of passing bad legislation," he said.

One hundred signatures are required by the lieutenant governor's office to initiate the initiative petition process. Wagoner said Ramras collected most of the signatures in the Fairbanks area, but he believes support for the shortened session also is strong on the Kenai Peninsula. He said he intended to start asking for shows of hands at future speaking engagements.

Once the petition application is certified to be in line with state law, petition documents would be printed and distributed.

To win a place on the 2006 ballot, supporters must collect enough signatures to equal 10 percent of the total number of voters who cast ballots in the last general election. However, recent changes in state law now require that signatures equal to at least 7 percent of those voting in the last election be obtained in 30 of the 40 legislative districts.

"I said I would be responsible for the three districts on the peninsula," Wagoner said, adding he plans to set up booths at public gatherings such as fairs and Fourth of July celebrations.

According to the Division of Elections, 7 percent of the vote in House Districts 33, 34 and 35 would equal 7,705, 8,130 and 8,681 votes, respectively. What he doesn't get at public gatherings, he will get by going door to door, Wagoner said.

Reached Friday, Ramras was cautious about speculating on the success of the 90-day proposal, primarily because supporters are still awaiting certification of petition language and an OK on the roughly 125 signatures he delivered to the lieutenant governor's office. He said bills proposing a shorter session have been introduced almost every year since around 1990 but were stopped in committee. The same is true of bills in the House and Senate this year.

Ramras agreed with Wagoner that the initiative could provide the impetus for the Legislature to send a session-shortening measure to the House and Senate floors for up or down votes.

He said he has heard concerns by legislative opponents of a shorter session who say 90 days would serve to strengthen the governor in a state that already has a stronger chief executive than many others, and it would weaken the Legislature. Others worry a shorter session would empower lobbyists even further.

Ramras doesn't agree.

"We think a shorter session would not only save state money, upwards of $1 million a year, but get better people running for and serving in office, and less bad legislation and fewer laws," he said.

Guess has supported a 90-day session since at least the start of the 24th Legislature. She is the prime sponsor of Senate Bill 9, a measure calling for a 90-day session that has languished in the Senate State Affairs Committee since its introduction Jan. 11. Guess was not available for comment.

Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, said he supported a 90-day session, but questioned whether it would work, especially given the often divisive nature of legislative sessions.

"Politics did get involved in it this year," Chenault said.

Ramras agreed, but said there is much wasted time under the current timetable, and that given a tighter deadline, lawmakers should be able to accomplish the same work in 90 days.

A shorter session would not necessarily mean more special sessions, either, he said. Special session calls aren't necessarily directly related to failure to finish regular legislative duties.

A shortened session might be made to work, Chenault said, if committees were permitted to meet and do work during the interim and bills could be introduced at any time during the year. But he also said spending less time in Juneau would mean various state departments would be under somewhat less scrutiny by legislators. That concerns him, he said.

Ramras' list of initiative supporters has been delivered to the Alaska Department of Law and the Alaska Division of Elections for review and verification. There is no time limit for certification, but Annette Kreitzer, Leman's chief of staff, said the office policy is to process such applications as quickly as possible.

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