What others say: 90-day session shortchanges debate, public input

  • Tuesday, January 19, 2016 3:16pm
  • Opinion

This year’s legislative session will see discussion of a great many bills. As Alaska faces a fiscal crisis, many of those bills will be on budget-related topics. Others will address the fledgling marijuana industry and statewide regulations related to it. There will be bills dealing with resource development, corrections reform and a host of other topics. What’s more, every bill that didn’t see passage in 2015 will remain under consideration, as 2016 is the second year of the legislative term. The vast majority of these bills won’t come to the floor for a vote. In some cases, this will be because of the fact that the majority in the Legislature don’t feel the subject worthy of consideration. In others, political differences may cause legislators to abandon a bill. But in most cases, the reason lawmakers won’t take up bills is that in the shortened 90-day legislative session, there just isn’t time to give them the consideration they deserve. It’s time for the Legislature to give itself some time to make good laws.

The sentiment behind trying a 90-day session was noble. It would save the state money, proponents said, and many times, bills in the Legislature didn’t really start moving until the latter half of the session — so why not make the session shorter and cut out the dead time when less was getting done? It would allow legislators to be more available to their constituents by being in their districts for more of the year, and it would let those with jobs outside the Legislature stay better on top of those responsibilities. Based on those arguments, an initiative put the decision to voters in 2006. In the wake of the VECO scandal, many Alaskans were easy to convince that legislators weren’t spending their time in Juneau wisely, and the electorate voted narrowly in favor of the shortened session. It has been in place since 2008.

To put it plainly, however, the 90-day experiment hasn’t worked as intended. In a majority of years since the law passed, the Legislature has met for more than 90 days — extending the regular session, being called into special session or both. Ninety days, it turns out, isn’t much time to get all of the state’s business done for the year. What’s more, the compressing effect the shortened session has on the legislative calendar means there’s less time for constituents to weigh in on bills and less time for legislators to consider them. Last year, for instance, the Legislature was grappling with Medicaid expansion, a refocused Interior energy project, a $4 billion budget deficit and writing the rules for personal and retail marijuana in the state, along with dozens of other bills. The group’s focus was split and topics were rushed, with many in the public feeling they weren’t given adequate opportunity for comment on bills and amendments. Even when members of the public were able to speak their piece, the rushed nature of hearings often made them feel legislators weren’t listening.

There are two bills related to the legislative session’s length that have been prefiled this session. Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, would like to see the 90-day session enshrined in the Alaska Constitution to remove the Legislature’s ability to go beyond it when needed. Given how often it has been necessary to extend the session for vital pieces of legislation, such a move would be folly. But Rep. Sam Kito III, D-Juneau, has a more sensible proposal: End the 90-day experiment and return to the 120-day session set out by the framers of the Alaska Constitution. His is the bill that should prevail, and legislators should use a little of the precious time they have in Juneau to pass it.

The 90-day session was a bold experiment, but ultimately, it’s been a failed one for the Legislature and Alaskans alike. It’s time to pull the plug.

— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,

Jan. 19