Over 10 years ago, Alaskans voted to limit the legislative session to 90 days with the hope that the legislature would finish its work on time and under budget. Since oil prices dropped in 2014, however, the legislature has been unable to finish the state’s business in 90 days or even 120 days. We have endured extended session after extended session followed by special sessions. Is it time for Alaskans to amend our Constitution to establish an effective 90-day limit on legislative sessions?
At the time of statehood in 1959, the Alaska Constitution did not place any limit on the length of the legislative session. With a citizen legislature, the framers of our Constitution believed that the pressures of work and home would provide incentives for legislators to keep sessions short. Initially, the framers were right: the legislature averaged 86 days in session from 1959 to 1970. When Alaska began receiving substantial oil revenue, however, the legislature became unable to efficiently finish its work. From 1971 to 1985, the legislature averaged 141 days in session. So in 1984, Alaskans amended Article II, section 8 of our Constitution and limited the session to 120 days. The legislature responded to the constitutional change and reduced the average length of session from 141 days to 130 days from 1986 to 2007.
With increasing concerns about the cost and length of legislative sessions, a voter initiative in 2006 shortened the session in Alaska Statutes to 90 days. Since the voter initiative took effect in 2008, the legislature has only met the 90-day limit on five occasions and has failed to meet the deadline every year since 2013. This year, the legislature is on a path to set a new record for consecutive days in regular and special sessions—toppling the record of 165 days set in 1981.
The drop in oil prices has made it difficult for the legislature to make budget compromises and finish its work on-time. In contrast, when Alaska had substantial savings from oil and gas taxes, the legislature worked out compromises by making additional capital appropriations to individual districts. But those savings have disappeared with the oil price drop that began in 2014.
The legislature ignores the statutory 90-day limit because of the long-standing legal principal that the Constitution always controls when there is a difference between a statue and the Constitution. As a result, the legislature has rolled over the 90-day limit for the last 3 years. In the midst of a recession and long-term financial challenges, there is no end in sight to extended and special sessions.
Amending the Constitution to establish an effective 90-day limit will serve three primary purposes. First, it will force the legislature to focus its attention on state finances and shorten the schedule for adopting a budget. This year, for example, the financial challenges were well-known by the first of January. Indeed, the legislature kicked the same issues down the road in 2016. While a stock market crash or major international events just days before the end-of-session might provide a reason to take more time, the current challenges have existed for months and the solutions are apparent.
Second, a 90-day session will reduce the quantity of “personal” legislation. A 90-day session will make sure the legislature focuses its attention on the most important issues and is less likely to get side-tracked with special interest matters.
Third, if circumstances arise that require a special session, the governor will be able to narrow the agenda to vital issues and prevent consideration of non-essential legislation.
There is no golden rule for legislative session length. For example, the Kansas, Montana, North Dakota, and Texas legislatures meet every other year. The Oregon legislature meets for 35 days in even-numbered years and 160 days in odd-numbered years, while the Washington legislature meets for 60 days in even-numbered years and 105 days in odd-numbered years. Hawaii meets for just 60 legislative days. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that states “with no session limits are more likely to have late state budgets.”
The failure to adjourn in 90 days also limits the ability for Alaska to have true citizen legislators—people who have regular jobs and serve in the legislature. Today, we have commercial fishermen, contractors, administrators, lawyers, and miners who bring real-world experience to their legislative service. The unpredictably long sessions make it more and more difficult for citizen legislators to serve. In the long-term, repeat extended and special sessions will lead to more full-time legislators and fewer citizen legislators.
Since passing the 90-day session initiative, Alaskans have come to expect the legislature to finish its work on-time and under budget. In challenging financial times, however, the legislature appears unwilling to meet Alaskans expectations. Now is the time to amend the Alaska Constitution and limit the session to 90 days.
Matt Claman, a Democrat from Anchorage, represents District 21 in the Alaska House of Representatives.