The Alaska Legislature didn’t gavel out on Sunday at the end of its 90th regular day, and that’s just fine with us.
The state is running a $4.1 billion annual deficit, a problem unparalleled in Alaska’s history. Difficult decisions must be made, and these decisions should take thoughtful consideration.
When the Legislature finishes isn’t as important as the result.
The state must have a budget solution this year, and even if the entire deficit cannot be filled in a single year, we cannot afford to solve our budget problems from savings alone, as we have been doing.
When Alaska voters were asked in 2006 whether they wanted to limit the Legislature to 90 days, all three of the state’s major newspapers urged voters to say no. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, the Anchorage Daily News, and this newspaper all said that a 90-day session would result in rushed deliberations and bad bills.
Unfortunately, we were right.
In 2006, Alaska voters decided by a 117,675 to 113,832 margin that a 90-day session was the right thing to do.
History has borne out the failure of that decision. The 2006 vote was enshrined in statute, not as a constitutional amendment, which means the Legislature has been able to violate it at will.
Ninety-day sessions started with the 2008 Alaska Legislature, and this is the ninth. Only two have finished before midnight on the morning of Day 91 without being followed immediately by a special session: 2009 and 2013. The 2010 session ended close to the deadline: It finished just after midnight.
Again and again, lawmakers have chosen to ignore the 2006 limit and stick to the 121-day limit enshrined in the Alaska Constitution. A shorter session limits debate and consideration. That 2013 session, which ended within the 90-day limit, gave us Senate Bill 21.
SB 21, as flawed a piece of legislation as has ever existed in Alaska, spawned a voter initiative to repeal it. It is costing the state of Alaska hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue due to tax credit loopholes that the Legislature is struggling to close in this very session.
Ironically, those loopholes are precisely the reason the Legislature was unable to finish within 90 days this year.
The framers of the Alaska Constitution were concerned about limiting the legislative session, which is why the Constitution originally contained no limit. The 121-day limit was enacted in a constitutional amendment passed by voters in 1984.
The great Gordon Harrison, in the fifth edition of “Alaska’s Constitution: A Citizen’s Guide,” describes the Alaska Constitutional framers’ thoughts on the length of the Legislative session:
“The framers of the constitution adopted the progressive view that the legislature should not be rushed in its deliberations, as the business of state government is too complex to be transacted in hurried, infrequent sessions. …. Delegates feared that constraints on the length (and frequency) of sessions might result in ill-conceived or imprudent measures as well as a legislative disadvantage vis-à-vis the executive.”
The framers of the Alaska Constitution were right. The length of the session doesn’t matter. What matters is the end result.
— Juneau Empire,