On Thursday, the Alaska Legislature voted to take a recess while the House and Senate finance committees continue to work on the state budget. Lawmakers gaveled in for a special session this week after they could not complete their work in an extended regular session, begging the question of whether it should return to a 120-day session.
A break from the capitol — but not a break from the people’s business — may be just what legislators need to refocus and finish the job. Keeping them cooped up in the same room isn’t working.
It’s hard to say whether the current budget impasse could have been avoided with an extra 30 days on the legislative calendar, or if it simply would have been delayed by a month, and lawmakers would instead be negotiating through the Memorial Day holiday. The special session called by Gov. Bill Walker could last that long.
The Alaska constitution puts a 120-day limit on regular legislative sessions; Alaska voters imposed the 90-day limit via a 2006 ballot initiative. Since that initiative passed, there have been various calls for returning to the longer session. The compressed timeframe has made some legislation seem rushed at the end of the session, and lawmakers have cited it as a limiting factor in taking input from the public.
This year has been no exception as legislators wrestle with a multi-billion dollar budget shortfall — in addition to other complex issues, such as regulations for legalized marijuana. We might grumble about the slow and deliberate pace of legislation, but it’s far better for lawmakers to pass well thought out, well vetted legislation than to rush through the process and approve a bad bill.
Case in point is 2013-14’s HB 77, which was held up and eventually rejected after widespread public criticism of the measure, much of it collected at public hearings hosted by Sen. Peter Micciche.
To that end, the solution isn’t more days on the clock for legislators in Juneau, but more days spent listening to constituents in legislators’ home districts. Our Kenai Peninsula legislators generally make it back for a weekend visit once or twice during the session, and while they make themselves available via teleconference, email and telephone, there really is no substitute for face-to-face public dialogue.
So, instead of calling for a longer session, let’s call a timeout. Legislators might even be better served to take a week-long recess late in the session, when the bills under consideration have been through the committee process, to come home and spend a few days gathering feedback. Then they can head back to Juneau to finish their work with their constituents’ priorities fresh in their minds.
Unless a recess is to be counted against the 90-day limit, the statute governing legislative session limits would need to be changed. Other changes have been floated over the past few session as well, including a return to the 120-day session or alternating 90- and 120-day sessions.
Whatever the case, lawmakers continue to deal with complex topics and complicated legislation. Simply demanding that they get it done doesn’t always lead to good results.