Shorter session would limit public participation

Posted: Monday, October 30, 2006

Thank you for your calls and participation in the legislative process while I served you in Juneau for the past four years. I would like to take this opportunity to discuss the important ballot measures with you.

Proposition One, which would reduce the legislative session from 120 to 90 days, is based on the faulty assumption that legislators want to be away from home, family, friends and businesses longer than necessary to conduct the business they were elected to do. Shortening the session has been introduced over 20 times in the last 15 years under Independent, Democratic and Republican governors. It has never reached a floor vote in either the House of Senate because, upon close examination, the effect would be to reduce public participation.

The State Affairs Committee, which I chair, considered 90-day session legislation this year and forwarded the bill with one “do not pass” and four “no recommendation” votes. I did not “hold” the bill in committee, so that other legislators could debate the idea.

Some concerns we had are:

Trying to rush bills through a shorter session will lead to fewer hearings on each bill and less time for the public to suggest changes before a bill passes out of committee.

Legislators are paid $24,200 annually split into 12 monthly payments, so no money will be saved.

There will be more interim committee meetings, which will add to travel budgets and are not covered by Gavel-to-Gavel.

There has already been talk of changing the rules to allow bills to move between committees outside the regular legislative session if the initiative passes. This will lead to less public awareness, involvement and scrutiny than the current system.

The first month of the legislative session is not wasted. All members must be sworn into office, bills must be introduced, and a mandatory five day public notice must be posted before a bill can be heard.

Committee membership changes with each new legislature. A basic function of committees is oversight of executive branch departments. Each new committee needs overview hearings to serve its oversight function and ensure departments are operating effectively. Most legislators are on four committees, so learning about the multiple departments they oversee takes time and commitment.

Questions that should be asked before supporting a 90-day session:

Do supporters of the shortened session also support reducing the public notice period before a bill can be heard?

Do supporters wish to have fewer committees hear each bill?

Do supporters believe the legislature should abdicate its oversight responsibility?

Would more people really be able to serve in the legislature because employers would allow an employee three months annual leave, but not four?

Locally elected officials for years have closely studied and rejected a shortened session. I hope that voters thoroughly study the effects of this initiative before reducing the time your representatives have to do the work you expect them to do in an open and public manner.

Proposition Two, which would impose a gas reserves tax, could have negative effects on gas line negotiations if approved and enacted exactly as written. However, I would certainly expect the legislature to modify the legislation so that it would better work to achieve the intent of the voters without those negative effects. For instance, we could immediately change the wording so the tax would no longer be collected after construction starts. We could also begin a construction cost “match” from that tax money as construction proceeds. This would mean that if a pipeline is built by the producers within a specified number of years, they would get their tax credited back early and they would only need to ask the parent companies for half the funding, up to maybe the first $10 billion of construction costs.

The legislature cannot repeal an initiative for two years. Since initiatives do not go through the refinement of the committee process they often need adjustment to accomplish the voter intent. In this case, we could immediately pass such a bill with a 2 year delayed effective date to let industry know what the system will be, and there is no proposal to start construction within two years on any pipeline route. This would avoid any claim of violating the two year “hands off” provision.

Voters will decide this issue, but I do not see “doom and gloom” as the only outcome if it passes, as long as we all remember that spurring construction of a pipeline was the intent — not the specific tax and credit wording.

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