This year, at the end of the 90th day of session, I voted to adjourn, in keeping with current Alaska State Law that requires the legislature to adjourn no later than the 90th calendar day.
The law is Alaska Statute 24.05.150:
“The legislature shall adjourn from a regular session within 90 consecutive calendar days, including the day the legislature first convenes in that regular session.”
As you can see from the picture above, that proposal went over like a lead balloon.
The true cost of never-ending legislative sessions
Last year, the Alaska Legislature was in session continuously for 196 days—a new state record.
This year, at the end of Day 90, I voted to adjourn the legislative session. Unfortunately, I was the only one to do so.
The Alaska Legislature was officially in session for 211 days last year and 118 days this year, for a total of 329 days. 329 days is a fantastic amount of time for a legislature to be in session. By way of contrast, the Texas Legislature, whose state has a population of 28.7 million, was only in session for 178 days over the same time period.
In total, over the course of the six legislative sessions of the 30th Alaska Legislature, my family and I spent 345 days in Juneau, and traveling to and from sessions.
Long legislative sessions involve a direct cost to the people of Alaska. Last year’s four special sessions alone cost the state over $2 million dollars. However, the indirect expenses, the cost of all of the bad legislation passed during times when the legislature would not normally have been in session, are almost incalculable.
Also difficult to calculate is the impact that these never-ending sessions have on the caliber of legislators themselves, as well as the caliber of the legislative staff who work in Juneau when the legislature is in session. Longer sessions mean fewer Alaskans can juggle the demands of holding down a job and also serving in the legislature at the same time.
For many legislators and employees, longer sessions mean time away from not only their regular employment, but also time away from families.
Rather than change the law, which the legislature has the power to do at any time, legislators have chosen instead to simply ignore it.
Solutions that solve nothing
Historically, when more commercial fishermen were serving as legislators, those that did not participate in commercial fishing possessed a distinct advantage over those that did. All they had to do was to put off key votes until the legislative session began to cut into the livelihood of the commercial fishermen. At that point, they would have fishermen over a barrel, and could coerce them into casting votes for things that they would not have dreamed of voting for up to that point.
Legislators today behave much the same way. Laws which could never garner enough votes to pass in the first 90 days of session suddenly have a chance to pass once they make it past Day 90 and legislators justify giving a bill less scrutiny on the grounds that they are already passed the 90 Day deadline and need to rush things to avoid violating the deadline even further.
Alaskans are justifiably offended that the legislature would behave in this manner, and have proposed various penalties for legislators; ranging from withholding legislator salaries, to removing them from office completely, to reducing or even eliminating the per diem that covers the high cost of living expenses in Juneau during the tourist season.
However, all such punishments, if applied to all legislators indiscriminately, will be used by some legislators against other legislators, just like extended summer sessions were used against legislators involved in the commercial fishing industry in times past.
The only “penalty” that all legislators understand is the prospect of being replaced in the next election. No amount of lesser penalties will fix what is broken in Juneau as long as politicians believe they will continue to be re-elected. In fact, the more likely outcome is that any such penalties will simply be used by wealthy, retired politicians to threaten those politicians who still have to work outside the legislature to feed their families, which will make the problems in Juneau even worse.
Alaskans must always keep in mind that the legislature itself makes no decisions and is responsible for nothing. Only individual legislators cast votes and are responsible for the consequences of those votes. Only individual legislators can be held accountable for the decisions that they make on your behalf.
Continuing to ignore Alaska’s 90-Day Session Law is not an acceptable solution. Legislators should either repeal the 90-Day Session Law outright, or adjust the session calendar to implement the 90-Day Deadline.
I proposed House Bill 371 and House Concurrent Resolution 24 this year to prevent future legislatures from repeatedly calling back to back special sessions, a process that last year led to the legislature being in session continuously for 196 days.