Our youngest daughter turned one this week. My wife and I happened to do the math the other day, and realized that she has now spent more of her life in Juneau than she has in the Mat-Su. For those who missed it, the legislature has already spent more than 180 days in Juneau this year. And today, Governor Walker announced that he will be calling legislators back to Juneau for yet another special session.
This is without precedent. Never in Alaska history has a governor called a fourth special session in a single year, and never has the legislature held a fourth special session in a single year. In fact, before Walker, there was only one year that included three special sessions, going all the way back to statehood. All told, this will be the 9th special session to take place during Walker's tenure.
Voters have rightly picked up on the fact that special sessions cost money—their money. But few Alaskans have picked up on the less tangible, but more expensive, long-term costs of this year's endless special sessions.
The Alaska Legislature is currently on track to spend more days in session this year than in any year since statehood. Already this year, the legislature broke the record for the longest continuously serving legislature in state history. At 180 continuous days in session, the legislature easily broke the previous record of 165 days (set in 1981). Older Alaskans will remember 1981 as the year when the length of the legislative session so thoroughly disgusted voters that they were inspired to amend the Alaska State Constitution to prohibit such a thing from ever taking place again.
After amending the constitution, voters also passed a law limiting regular sessions to 90 days. It cannot have escaped notice that the governor has already doubled that number through his repeated "special" sessions this year. But what is so special about legislative sessions that drag on year after year? In the three years since Walker's election, the average number of days spent in session has already reached the same 165 days that inspired the revolt in 1981. And with a fourth special session now headed our way, that average will only continue to grow.
We are facing a crisis, and the outline of that crisis has now become clear. In short, our political system was not designed to endure the pressures that inevitably arise when legislators begin spending the majority of their lives in Juneau. At 90 days, legislators and their families can spend most of their lives, and pursue most of their social interaction, outside of Juneau. But when you begin to spend most of your life in a place, it is simply human nature that you will also want to invest more heavily in friendships and relationships with those you are likely to be spending the most time with.
At 90 days, legislators can maintain careers and businesses outside of the legislature. At 190 days, spread out unpredictably throughout the year, many of those opportunities disappear. Without being able to depend on an outside source of income, the role of legislator becomes self-limiting to those who are independently wealthy, as good candidates who are not independently wealthy choose not to run for election.
Current legislators who are forced to give up outside employment, become increasingly vulnerable to financial pressures. For many, the impact of lost wages is passed directly on to their families. This, in turn, has an effect on legislators. Also, it can become harder to say "no" to future special sessions if those special sessions might offset some of the wages that were lost. In short, having a part-time legislature requires having part-time expectations of our legislators. When those expectations get out of whack, you eventually end up with the majority of legislators having no other livelihood to turn to outside of politics.
At 90 days, it is reasonable to expect legislators to be present to represent their constituents when the legislature is in session. When legislators are in session for half the year or more, it is more likely that scheduling conflicts will arise (weddings, family emergencies, etc.) and legislators will be absent when it comes time to vote, thereby depriving their constituents of representation. Also, at 190 days, temptations increase for legislators to find excuses to be absent when tough votes are taken.
At 190 days, you may also encounter the surprising phenomenon, as occurred this year, of legislators actually boasting of not working in Juneau during the legislative session and explaining their absences as a type of "cost savings" to the public. But the cost of being absent for significant portions of the legislative session is inevitably paid by one's constituents.
It would be quite nice if legislators could return home each weekend with full confidence of being able to fly back to Juneau in time to make any important meetings or votes, but then again, we are talking about politics here.
To cite but one example from earlier this year, my senator happened to take a trip back to the district and made plans to fly back to Juneau in order to vote on this year's budget. He coordinated his travel with his colleagues in the senate, and flew back to Juneau when the time came for the vote. He arrived in Juneau, and on his way from the Juneau airport to the capitol building, the senate decided to go ahead and hold the vote without him, thereby denying nearly 40,000 Alaskans the opportunity to have our vote counted on this year's budget. Politics.
Partisan politics aside, our current election processes were not designed with full-time legislators in mind. Legislators are forbidden from campaigning or fundraising any time that the legislature is in session (including any special sessions). And while voters may welcome fewer campaign ads in the short term, the long-term ramifications of endless special sessions are terrifying.
A sitting governor can campaign at any time, whether the legislature is in session or not. He can fundraise whether the legislature happens to be in session or not. Many of the candidates he is running against (as members of the legislature), have no such ability. Without the ability to campaign and fundraise, candidates choose not to file for office, and voters have fewer choices on Election Day. Even those who do file for office are likely to be severely handicapped in a year when multiple special sessions take place. A governor running for re-election therefore has much to gain politically by calling the legislature into session often.
Even in years when the governor is not running for election, he has the ability to profoundly affect the elections of others simply by calling special sessions. Last year was an election year. Even so, the legislature was in session for nearly 160 days. Being unable to campaign or raise money for nearly 160 days during an election year is a significant handicap for any legislator. Again, political opponents outside the legislature experienced no such restrictions. At this point no one doubts that this disparity resulted in a number of legislators losing their races on Election Day last year.
When there is a political benefit to holding multiple special sessions, you can bet that the holding of special sessions will continue long into the future. And as special sessions become increasingly more commonplace, you will find that legislators are obliged to spend more time campaigning in non-election years to make up for the inability to campaign as heavily during election years.
Rather than legislators being permitted to take a step back from politics in the off-season, exactly the opposite is now taking place. Our elected officials, both those that prefer to serve part-time and those who would prefer full-time work, are now having to respond to pressures that are more typically felt by legislators in states like California that already have full-time legislators.
For the sake of the part-time legislators that still survive in Alaska, just say no to the endless special sessions.