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Survey: 90-day sessions causing problems

Posted: Monday, December 14, 2009

Alaska's voters in 2006 narrowly approved shortening legislative sessions from the constitutionally mandated 120-day maximum to 90 days.

Now, three regular legislative sessions and numerous special sessions later, legislators are talking about rolling back the unpopular measure when the Legislature convenes in January.

A special committee working between sessions surveyed members and staff of the House of Representatives. The result: Widespread unhappiness with the shorter, 90-day sessions.

"The data reinforces what we've been hearing during the session: The short time constraints make it hard to serve your constituents well," said Rep. Paul Seaton, chair of a small House subcommittee who was asked to look into the issue.

Seaton said the 41-question survey, which three-quarters of the House members and about half their staff members answered, concluded there were numerous problems with meeting for only 90 days.

The Senate did not participate in the survey, but Senate leaders also have been outspoken in their opposition to shorter sessions.

"I think the public has been short-changed," said Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak.

The short session results in too little time to study bills and too little time to hear from constituents, legislators said.

"If you have only one hearing on a bill it is very hard for a constituent to get any feeling for what is in the bill, and then be able to communicate with their legislator in time to affect the process," Seaton said.

Seaton said the survey shows widespread unhappiness with the shorter sessions, over a range of issues.

"The vast majority recognized there were multiple problems with the 90-day session, and the general trend was to go back to 120 days," said Rep. Cathy Muoz, R-Juneau, a member of the committee that conducted the survey.

The Senate did not do a similar survey, but Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, said he's convinced senators feel the same way as Stevens and the survey results.

"The Senate's always been critical of the 90-day session, at least most of the senators, me included," Egan said.

Seaton was asked to look into the issue by the Legislative Council, the joint committee that manages the business of the legislature. Under state law passed to implement the 90 day session, the Legislative Council is required to issue a report on how the shorter sessions have worked before the Legislature convenes in January.

"The Legislative Council may or may not agree with our findings," Seaton said.

Under state law, the Legislature cannot change a vote of the people for two years, but legislators have been grumbling about not having time to study issues, provide multiple hearings for bills or visit with constituents since the ballot initiative passed.

Two current legislators, Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, and Rep. Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks, sponsored the initiative after failing to persuade colleagues to shorten the sessions themselves. Former Sen. Gretchen Guess, D-Anchorage, also was part of the effort.

The measure narrowly passed in 2006, with 50.8 percent in favor. Advocates said shorter sessions would be cheaper for the state, as well as allowing more working people to serve as legislators.

Egan said special sessions for work that was not completed during regular sessions are likely the result of not enough time.

"If something isn't changed, special sessions will be the norm, and I don't like that," he said. "I'd be more than happy to go back to the 120-day session the constitution calls for."

The Alaska Constitution calls for a maximum 120-day session, but advocates of shorter sessions were unable to meet the high standards for amending the constitution. Instead, they passed a law shortening the session length through the initiative process.



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